The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare's hand—and that might be a good thing for innovations in healthcare technology.
In an industry that's notoriously slow to move (often for good reason), innovations in healthcare have lagged behind other industries, leaving stakeholders across the board asking for more, especially in the technology space. The stark need for safer, more accessible and flexible options—largely to support remote work demands, improve access to care and keep patients safe—has pushed chief information officers (CIOs) and tech leaders to rethink network standards.
Some decisions have focused on the short-term. For example, a third of leaders at large hospitals and health systems plan for more permanent work-from-home positions because of COVID-19. Yet others hold the promise of longer-term impact well beyond a pandemic.
Telemedicine and telehealth take hold
Telemedicine has been around since at least the 1960s, but despite its history, wide-spread implementation has largely been a pipe dream.
COVID-19 has forced swift adoption requiring heavy upgrades to network technology to support virtual care initiatives and maintain compliance with federal, state and local security standards. These upgrades include dedicated internet services, wireless private networks, cyber risk monitoring, voice cypher and private IP. The result has been medical interactions that are faster and safer during a global pandemic.
But don't expect to see telemedicine wane as the pandemic subsides. Hospitals are being encouraged to act now to support future, long-term telehealth demands, largely to address accumulating "care debt" among patients who have postponed services and procedures. Indeed, across the industry, virtual care is being declared the new normal.
Forrester senior analyst Arielle Trzcinski sees a long future of virtual care as one of the emerging innovations in healthcare technology: "While the pandemic will prove the value of virtual care in a crisis, it will also demonstrate the effectiveness for ongoing chronic care management," she told Computerworld. "This moment will have a lasting effect on the adoption of virtual care and accelerate the shift from in-person care to virtual first engagement for multiple conditions and use cases."
According to Brookings, the response to make telemedicine and telehealth more permanent will rely heavily on technologies like 5G, which can help turn mobile phones into primary points of interaction between patients and providers. The superior latency and resiliency of 5G also support more reliable virtual connections.
Looking ahead, there is great potential for these technologies in healthcare. While telemedicine currently involves clinical interactions, telehealth enabled by 5G technologies and more robust infrastructure can open the door to a new era of provider training, medical education, administrative meetings, revenue cycle processes and patient support.
At-home care evolves with the hospital at home concept
Though some hospitals and health systems have seen minimal impact from the pandemic, many have been pushed to the brink, navigating shortages of supplies, beds, staff and equipment.
One answer has been the concept of the "hospital at home". Originating with patients with chronic conditions like heart failure that can be managed outside the hospital through remote monitoring, the pandemic has introduced a new application. Patients who are presumed or suspected to have COVID-19 have been encouraged to manage their symptoms at home if the illness is mild or moderate enough.
From a technology perspective, the hospital at home concept relies heavily on biometric devices in the home. This subset of the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) supports monitoring that keeps patients out of hospitals—think biometrics that help doctors track information on cardiovascular health.
But the hospital at home concept is ripe for diversification, showing potential to supplement observation, palliative care, pediatric admissions, rehab and more as it leads the future of IoT in healthcare. Beyond COVID-19, expect to see the hospital at home underpinned by the IoMT and telemedicine as it branches out beyond COVID-19 and even cardiovascular domains. This extension of the traditional hospital holds potential to address ongoing shortages in physicianship and nursing, as well as local access challenges in urban and rural areas.
Virtual and augmented reality find their place
Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) has been used in long-term care facilities to create virtual experiences for senior citizens with limited mobility. Now, during a pandemic, their application has been extended more broadly into the general population. While some in-hospital VR research programs have been stalled, demand for other applications such as VR health clinics has taken off. VR is also being used to support multidisciplinary consultations while battling a pandemic that affects multiple organs in the body.
As patient isolation and quarantine orders continue their swing, expect to see increasingly widespread use of VR and AR technology to support doctor-patient interaction, improve care access and encourage activity among those with limited options. Additionally, keep an eye on supporting technology, such as 5G, that prop up virtual clinics and similar applications.
This is an amazing time for innovations in healthcare technology. Organizations across the industry will benefit from looking at today's challenges not just as something to overcome but also as an inspiration for a brighter future of healthcare opportunities that will shape patient care.
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The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.