The Rising Significance of Telemedicine Amidst the COVID-19 Outbreak

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The COVID-19 outbreak is affecting global leaders and ordinary people alike. First discovered in the Wuhan District of China, the pandemic’s epicenter initially shifted to Italy, which has recorded 97,689 cases as of 30 March 2020. Now, with 143,025 cases, the USA has surpassed all other countries. (Source: Center for Sytems Science and Engineering)

Presently, most international borders are sealed, global trade and supply routes are closed except for medical and essential commodities, and local industries and supply chains are severely hampered as well. According to the UN, the pandemic could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion this year.

Apart from crippling the global economy, the COVID-19 outbreak is also overwhelming the public healthcare systems at large. In this context, Telehealth is a promising solution that can ensure better access to essential healthcare. As a fundamental element of e-Health, it can also reduce the stress on healthcare establishments, enabling them to better combat the COVID-19 emergency.

How Telemedicine Can Help in Situations Like COVID-19 Outbreak

In 2018, the USA spent 16.9% of its GDP on healthcare — higher than other developed economies, such as Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, and the UK. However, it had the highest suicide rate (13.9 per 100,000 population), the highest rate of obesity (40%), and a very low per-capita visit to physicians (4 visits per year). Moreover, as compared to these nations, the US had the lowest supply of physicians, at merely 2.6 per 1,000 population. (Source: The Commonwealth Fund)

Pandemic situations like the COVID-19 outbreak — which is now a global emergency — present near-worst case scenarios for a public healthcare system that is already under immense pressure. In such a scenario, while the existing facilities focus on tackling the emergency, general healthcare takes a backseat, depriving many of their regular medication and treatment.

Let’s understand some of how innovations in Telehealth, backed by artificial intelligence (AI), can help in this regard. Applicable in general, these are especially beneficial for small and medium establishments in the time of crisis.

Video Conferencing with Doctors

‘Stay home’ is the adopted concept to flatten the COVID-19 outbreak’s curve. Yet, that doesn’t rule out the need for treatment, both new and ongoing. Despite being locked in their homes, patients must have access to their regular checkups and treatment for chronic ailments. Although lockdowns don’t apply to medical establishments, it’s often difficult to reach them. Also, chronically ill patients are more vulnerable to COVID-19, making it all the more necessary for them to stay indoors.

In this context, video conferencing with doctors can save lives. Nullifying spatial barriers, video conferencing can enable doctors to reach out to more patients, while also significantly saving time and money. In the case of emergencies, healthcare providers can administer the preliminary necessities over video calls, especially in non-surgical cases.

Rather than relying upon misleading videos from the web, patients can easily reach out to their doctors, almost “on-demand.” Furthermore, in times of social isolation, another potent application of video conferencing can be to administer psychological treatment and help. Mental health professionals and activists can get in touch with people in distress, thus easing the substantial psychological impact of the outbreak.

Remote Patient Monitoring

Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) is commonly yet mistakenly equated with Telehealth/Telemedicine. However, the latter encompasses a wide range of tech-based solutions, of which RPM is one.

Reducing the burden on patient management professionals, as well as the cost of nursing and hospitalization, RPM employs AI, IoT, and Big Data to monitor a patient’s vital signs outside the hospital setting.

RPM involves the collection, analysis, and documentation of heart rate, oxygen levels, blood sugar levels, and other kinds of data. In this regard, some of the existing solutions include:

1. Fitness Trackers
2. Smart Watches
3. ECG Monitors
4. Blood Pressure Monitors
5. Bio-sensors

The efficient channeling and analysis of such massive amounts of collected health data can also be leveraged for advancements in medical research while opening up unprecedented avenues for real-time monitoring of changes in health conditions.

Healthcare Chatbots

By 2025, the global market cap for chatbots is predicted to be around $1.25 billion, growing from $190.8 million in 2016. Arguably, the healthcare industry will contribute to its growth. (Source: Statista)

Presently, we have a rising demand for reliable and on-time information regarding COVID-19, while there’s a simultaneous surge in misinformation and myths. Healthcare bots can be a method for transmitting credible information and a myth-dispelling tool to spread awareness, thus strengthening our fight against the pandemic. Realizing this, WhatsApp has recently launched a World Health Organization chatbot to reach out to the app’s 2 billion user base.

Moreover, chatbots can also reduce the pressure on healthcare organizations and resist the collapse of essential healthcare facilities. They can be used for:

Administration & Consultancy — To automate repetitive tasks like appointment and doctor visit schedules, FAQs, to collect feedback, patient follow-ups, billing, claims, and more.

Symptom Tracking and Diagnosis — Using structured/semi-structured queries, AI-based bots can assess the existing symptoms, as well as the patient’s history, to determine elementary ailments and administer treatment. Symptom tracking can be especially helpful in the context of COVID-19, wherein the core protocol involves quarantine and self-monitoring. Since symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to that of the common cold or flu, it’s imperative to enable effective, accurate monitoring, without the need to visit health centers in person.

Elderly Care — Amidst lockdowns, or even otherwise, the elderly population is the most vulnerable to inadequate access to healthcare. By integrating voice commands for ease of access, chatbots can enhance the elderly care facilities, including reminders, query resolution, drug administration, and more. Further, the use of AI can enable these bots to automatically alert emergency contacts upon sensing any discrepancies in the patients’ health regime.

Why Shorter Time-to-Market is Essential While Developing a Healthcare Solution

One thing that the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the most is the need for prompt, responsible, and disruptive actions within the healthcare industry. For instance, in Italy — which has 10,000+ casualties already — the virus had probably been circulating before the first case was detected for quite some time, as reported by Time. And by then, many transmission chains were happening.

To an extent, this is relatable to the historical case of Tuberculosis, wherein delay in treatment has led to a significant number of otherwise preventable deaths. In 1993, the WHO declared a global state of emergency for TB. Yet, according to a WHO study, detections were only 28% in 2003. Among the major factors causing treatment delays, the study pinpointed a lack of accessibility to specialized clinics, consultation with general physicians, ineffective diagnosis, social stigma, and lack of awareness.

From the above examples, we may reiterate the significance of shorter time-to-market and disruptive innovations for improving the quality of global healthcare. Committed to saving lives, Unthinkable develops healthcare IT solutions with 2x speed, using reusable, decoupled, scalable, comprehensively tested, and agile code blocks known as Tech Extension. With us, you can give your patients what they need the most — timely care!


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