By Christine Kern, contributing writer
Finding ways to overcome technological barriers to achieve true global access to telehealth.
The global telemedicine market is estimated to be worth approximately $27 billion in 2016 as global demand continues to grow and the U.S. market thrives under the Affordable Care Act, according to a BCC Research report. The American Telemedicine Association estimates as many as 15 million people used telemedicine services in 2015 — a 50 percent jump from 2013 accelerated by the swift proliferation of smart phones and other personal electronic devices that enable convenient two-way conversation platforms for patients and their doctors .
In fact, ABI research indicates telehealth has the potential to reduce healthcare costs while simultaneously delivering medical services to underserved or rural communities. ABI found advancements in mobile technology and applications, along with interest in cost-effective healthcare and rising populations, are driving the growth of telehealth.
But even as the use of telemedicine expands and gains greater recognition as an effective and efficient means of delivering healthcare to underserved regions, physicians and patients alike are battling some of the more vexing obstacles to its universal implementation.
In a recent interview with Health IT Outcomes, Eric M. Wallen, UNC Urology program director and professor in the Department of Urology explained, “I think most Wi-Fi and phone networks are sufficient for telemedicine right now, but more and cheaper networks will help — Google Fiber, for example. The next level of usage will be achieved by more patient and caregiver awareness of telemedicine as an important resource to improve health.”
For Dr. Brian R. Forrest, M.D., CEO and founder of Access Healthcare, “The most critical challenge is equipment and connection bandwidth. If a patient does not have a mobile device or lives in a high-speed Internet desert, then telemedicine is not even possible. Many mobile carriers still have large gaps in geographic coverage for rural areas.”
Tony Zhao, founder and CEO of communications company Agora.io, says, “Our experience is that there is a dramatic increase in innovative mobile and global telemedicine solutions that require a much simpler cloud-based video integration and economic model to support industry growth. As telemedicine is increasingly delivered over the public Internet to remote and mobile patients, solution providers will need our unique approach to ensure video quality over challenging network conditions.
“When implementing video chat functionality into your telemedicine app, that’s meant to connect and diagnose patients halfway around the world, it’s important that the signal is exceptionally strong regardless of where they are, what kind of network they’re on, be it 3G/4G or WiFi or the stability of that country’s infrastructure, because if the video is unclear and choppy, then there is no point to your international telemedicine app.”
According to a recent study by Salesforce.com, State of the Connected Patient, approximately 60 percent of millennials would videoconference with their doctor from home, but only if the quality of the video is high. “Millennials won’t accept choppy or disjointed video from their healthcare provider like they do with Skype,” noted Zhao. “They expect reliability from any service where they’re paying significant money.”