News Feature | May 5, 2016

Challenges And Burdens To Mainstream Telemedicine

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Virtual Telehealth Doctor

Connectivity and reliability remain obstacles to universal access to telemedicine.

While telehealth is a powerful tool to help improve outcomes and lower costs,it also brings a number of challenges and burdens. These obstacles must first be overcome in order to create efficiencies and extend the reach of existing providers, thus ameliorating healthcare workforce issues and reducing health disparities for underserved populations by overcoming access barriers around the globe. Telemedicine can serve as vital connective tissue for expanding healthcare organization networks, when properly implemented and supported.

In fact, GBI research indicates telehealth has the potential to reduce healthcare costs while simultaneously delivering medical services to underserved or rural communities. GBI found advancements in mobile technology and applications, along with interest in cost-effective healthcare and rising populations,are driving the growth of telehealth.

One obstacle is the lack of access in remote or rural areas. According to the National Rural Health Association, more than 48 rural hospitals have closed and an additional 283 are in danger of shutting due to a number of bottom-line cost issues. As these rural hospitals shut down, it leaves a gap in coverage for patients in those areas. Telemedicine can help, but only if there is a way to connect.

The lack of broadband infrastructure continues to be challenging for the advancement of many forms of telemedicine, including high demand video and store-and-forward services, both of which require expansive health networks, according to a 2013 NIH report.

Broadband-enabled telemedicine programs improve patient access to care over great distances, reducing travel costs, enhancing chronic illness management, and improving health outcomes by facilitating regular and preventive care.Broadband also enables telemedicine providers to leverage the global nature of the internet and outsource critical medical data to specialists for diagnoses.

But for those individuals who do not have broadband access, whether it is in rural America or a war-torn global region, telemedicine remains out of reach. “The ability for physicians to connect with those in areas that don’t have much of a wireless connection is the biggest problem when trying to treat these patients,”said Tracy A. Lustig, author of The Role Of Telehealth in an Evolving Health Care Environment. “With weak connections, video streams for telehealth are blurry, choppy or just won’t work. Implementing technology that doesn’t rely on the general Internet but which relies on an infrastructure that strengthens signals in the most remote areas is crucial.”

In fact, reliability is a serious challenge for telemedicine. “A dropped connection may not be a huge deal between friends but between a physician and a patient — it could lead to missed instructions and possible patient mismanagement,”says Arun Ravi, senior consultant, healthcare group, North America at Frost & Sullivan.

Despite thriving innovation, the telemedicine market remains nascent with relatively limited availability. Adoption and use of more advanced telemedicine services often is dependent upon the availability of broadband or a patient’s proximity to a local telemedicine provider.The full potential of telemedicine will not be realized without continued deployment and adoption of advanced broadband networks, innovation of ways to optimize broadband connections, further innovation of devices and applications, and the development of network protocols to efficiently and securely transmit these time-sensitive services.