Can Technology Step Up Amid Surging Demand for Telehealth?

The global pandemic accelerated the need for telehealth services. Here’s how 5G can make an impact

By Maggie Hallbach

Last year, only 11% of American consumers used telehealth for long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admission. Today, nearly half of Americans—46%—rely on telehealth because of COVID-19 safety concerns, and 76% of consumers are now interested in using telehealth, according to McKinsey & Company’s survey in April 2020. With that amount of uptake, what comes next?

With its lower latency and faster speeds that could help increase accuracy in real-time diagnosis and boost innovation in operating rooms, 5G could be the key that finally unlocks the full potential of telehealth just as demand and interest surges.

While health and safety concerns from the global pandemic have been a powerful catalyst in healthcare technology, the need for more advanced telehealth is accelerating. These rapid healthcare changes will require efficient solutions long after the pandemic ends. There are challenges, to be sure, but the potential benefits of innovative technology and next-generation networks are too great to ignore since they have the promise to deliver a significantly better telemedicine experience for patients and practitioners.

A better patient experience

Telehealth enables us to broaden access to healthcare, and it’s important we create a quality connection between patient and physician. Today’s tech-savvy patient will have high expectations for telehealth, but we need to prepare for patients with a range of tech literacy. This requires intuitive tools that patients are familiar with to create a better experience.

On the physician end, harnessing new technologies—like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), 5G, robotics, and the internet of things—points to a future where the healthcare experience can push the boundaries of what’s possible. The ability to deliver immersive, high-quality medical experiences for patients and physicians, anytime, could be a game-changer in a world where social distancing and remote working and learning have become the norm.

In some cases, these new technologies are already set to make an impact. Remote physical therapy using VR, for example, can take advantage of 5G’s low latency for seamless and highly convenient virtual interactions between patients and physical therapists. Such advanced technology allows for patients to easily access care from a variety of professionals, from basic care to specialists.

Equipping healthcare institutions with technology

Healthcare institutions have been focused on immediate solutions to help in the fight against COVID-19, and we need to use this crisis as a catalyst for change. For the long term, we must commit to creating sophisticated technology that can enable a more seamless and higher-quality healthcare experience for practitioners and their patients. There are many examples where a 5G network, allowing access to data analytics in real time, could result in better care for patients and improved performance on complex surgeries.

For practitioners, consider endocrinologists performing colonoscopies. With 5G and mobile edge computing (MEC), they can have a more advanced and accurate way to identify polyps, using the scope video feed and AI to pinpoint polyps that they otherwise might miss. The low latency provided by 5G and MEC provides the near–real time responsiveness a doctor needs to deliver higher-quality care.

These technologies also promise to reimagine healthcare training and are particularly well suited to the now-common situation of working from home. AR/VR paired with super-fast 5G can provide immersive, collaborative experiences to help doctors learn. These applications, powered by 5G, could allow hospitals to transport residency students to operating rooms in many locations, remotely giving them an intraoperative experience with an up-front and up-close view of delicate procedures.

Then there’s the ever-present need for data privacy. With security breaches and sensitive patient documents high on hackers’ lists, healthcare organizations must continue to prioritize data protection. A 2019 analysis of 481 health data breaches by analytics firm Protenus found that over 41 million patient records were affected. In fact, a single security breach affected nearly 21 million patient records. How can we work to keep our patient records secure?

While carriers are beginning to adopt zero-trust architecture solutions, which aim at blocking connectivity to servers and applications from unknown devices, the 5G network is inherently different from other generations. 5G was developed with security in mind, including added encryption with multiple points of authentication across the network.

New healthcare business models

The benefits of these technologies cannot be ignored. Yet the reality is that many healthcare organizations must ensure a given technology has a compelling value proposition. Investing in tech simply because it is cool or new no longer makes strategic sense.

That is why we must acknowledge that with a 5G network comes the need for 5G-enabled devices and equipment upgrades to enable full functionality—which poses an associated cost at a time when many hospitals are struggling financially. The American Hospital Association estimates that hospitals lost an estimated $200 billion in revenue between March and June as they reallocated resources from profitable outpatient procedures to handle the influx of COVID-19 cases.

For an industry losing $50 billion a month, investing in new technology may not seem like the smart path forward. The solutions needed to make telehealth mainstream are not going to be discovered in a month, either. Fortunately, stimulus bills have created seed pools of money for things like remote healthcare, advanced rural care, and ongoing accessibility requiring a new business model and approach—and we’ll need to do more to ensure that the industry has sustained access to these funding sources.

A 5G network powering new 5G-enabled devices is vital for the ongoing health of hospitals. To succeed long term, they must seize on this opportunity to innovate. Already, some health systems have pivoted toward a better approach for their patients, employees, and communities. For example, the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, California, is exploring how 5G can transform healthcare.

Technological leaps aren’t always easy, but the resulting benefits are tremendous. The pandemic has shown us—perhaps a bit earlier than we all expected—that telehealth is here to stay and could revolutionize healthcare overall.

Maggie Hallbach is vice president of business development, public sector, Verizon Business.