Telehealth is the use of telecommunications equipment and infrastructure to enable or facilitate health related activities. The use of Telehealth is growing rapidly in the US. As this occurs the types of technologies and the ways in which they are used in healthcare is also rapidly changing. Today, telehealth services are delivered in 4 basic ways. These include a) live video-based interactions between two individuals b) the transmission of prerecorded digital pictures and images c) remote patient monitoring which is the collection and wireless transmission of health information from an individual in one location to someone in another location and d) mHealth which involves the use of mobile hardware (phones, tablets etc.) and software (apps) to enable or facilitate health activities.
The delivery of telehealth services is often organized in one of three ways or models. When a large healthcare system is the primary provider of telehealth services to smaller often rural hospitals, this is called the hub and spoke model of telehealth organization and delivery. Alternatively, telehealth services can be delivered through a network model. In this model health care facilities are connected to each other, creating large networks and smaller subnetworks which work at times, independently and at other times together, to provide a range of telehealth services to patients and caregivers. Thirdly, due in large part to advances in broadband network availability and reliability, telehealth is increasingly being deployed in a “direct to consumer” model where consumers using their own devices can directly connect with health personnel and services anytime, anyplace.
So, what impact will telehealth have on the health sector in the future? Over the next decade we will continue to see tremendous innovation and evolution in the telehealth space. This will continue until most patients and most providers will be delivering health services using some form of telecommunications technology and or infrastructure. Consumer telehealth devices will go far beyond cell phones, tablets and apps to include voice activated systems like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, automobiles and even homes and buildings themselves. There will be tremendous growth in the types of data that can and will be collected from patients. There will also be rapid growth in the number of ways in which this data can be collected. Many everyday consumer devices will not only capture data and send it somewhere to be analyzed, but these devices will also, in the future, be able to appropriately act of the collected information, in real time without the direct involvement of a healthcare professional or family caregiver. This is the basis of what are known as “smart devices”. They are smart because computing power will have advanced to the point where it can be put not only into desktop computers and cell phones but into devices as small as dust or blood cells. They will not need batteries, because they will be able to run using the electricity generated by our bodies. Finally, they will in many cases, transfer information using low power medical body area networks which will enable the automatic capture and transmission of information from multiple body worn sensors simultaneously and wirelessly. The introduction of 5G networks will enable an era of continuous connectivity (or pervasive computing as it is also known). This will allow patients, caregivers and providers alike to monitor important health information continuously. (in real time, at all times, no matter where a patient, consumer or provider is located). Finally, there will be further evolution in the models of care delivery. Current models of telehealth all require an individual to decide to provide or receive a telehealth-based service. These models of Telehealth can be said to be “active” models because they require a person to do something in order to receive the or deliver the service. In the future, telehealth services will be delivered, in many cases, automatically, as the need arises. At times, patients will not even realize they are receiving health services at all, because delivery or receipt of the services will not require any active action and the spaces in which will live, work and play, will all be connected and smart. In this future, health care providers will oversee the development of the “brains” of these systems but will not always need to be involved in deciding or implementing the appropriate action to address the health concern. Broadband based technologies like telehealth are changing the world in exciting ways that are sometimes hard to imagine. They also have the potential to make the possibility of health a reality, for all.