Unpacking the Telehealth Box: What’s Inside?

November 2, 2020 Corporate Blog

by Sergey Kurakov

Telehealth is on the rise, ‘thanks’ to the coronavirus pandemic. If you think that the practice is limited to remote appointments, you might need to revise what you know about it.

telemedicine

A recent McKinsey’s survey has shown that due to COVID-19, over 70% of in-person visits were canceled, while 76% of respondents were in favor of using telehealth. Moreover, 74% of respondents who had already used telehealth said they were satisfied with the experience.

Healthcare providers are becoming increasingly accepting of telehealth. According to McKinsey, 57% are now more likely to adopt the practice, and 64% are feeling more comfortable using it.

More importantly, the authorities have loosened their telehealth policies. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the US have temporarily approved over 80 new services, easing regulatory pressure on providers. Several of those approvals have become permanent.

Investor response to this trend was not long in coming. According to Rock Health, in Q3 of 2020 around $4 billion was invested in digital health startups based in the US. As a result, the year’s total has already reached $9.4 billion. That is far over $8.2 billion, which was previously the maximum amount of funds raised by digital health annually.

To better understand what telehealth is, let’s split it into categories and consider each of them.

Virtual visits

Virtual visits as online consultations using voice and video calls are suitable for primary care, psychotherapy, and regular health checks. In other words, if physical engagement is not required, a virtual visit will do the job.

There already are plenty of apps that enable online consultations, such as Amwell, MDLIVE, Spruce, and Plushcare.

Medical examination devices

When physical interaction between the doctor and patient is required, there are medical examination tools that you can use at home or at a telemedicine kiosk.

You connect with your doctor, plug the device in, and use it to examine yourself, following your doctor’s instructions. Your doctor will see the result of your self-examination, interpret it, and diagnose any condition and prescribe treatment.

Comarch Diagnostic Point, for example, is a diagnostic center allowing you to use various diagnostics tools, following the guidance provided in a mobile app. At these points, you can check your ECG, blood pressure, saturation, temperature, and body weight.

Comarch Diagnostic Point explained

Digital biomarkers

The rise of AI has paved the way for so-called digital biomarkers. Digital biomarkers are the diagnostic data that digital devices collect by analyzing a patient’s images, videos, voice, and internal body signals.

Even your smartphone can function as a digital biomarker scanner, helping you self-check and share the results with your doctor.

For example, you could use a chatbot that will ask you questions to analyze your voice and answers to suggest a possible diagnosis. Or you could take a selfie every day and upload it to the AI app. The AI will analyze your images, looking for patterns that could allow it to recognize a condition in development early.

Pharma can use such tools to monitor the state of drug and vaccine trial volunteers remotely.

In 2019, the UK startup Medopad (now Huma) raised $25 million for the development of AI-based methods of building and analyzing digital biomarkers. The company has recently pioneered a platform that helps manage COVID-19 patients, tracking their symptoms, vital signs, and disease progression.

Patient processing

The COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous pressure on medical facilities. Technology can help relieve this burden.

AI chatbots, for example, can process patient calls. By asking questions and analyzing answers, they can identify and prioritize patients who require immediate attention. AI assistants can also support hotline operators who are often volunteers, lacking essential training.

One of the most advanced companies in this area is probably Corti. It uses neural language processing to detect conditions, from emergencies like a cardiac arrest to COVID-19 in development.

Corti helping an operator identify a cardiac arrest

Pharmacy uberization

Consulting a GP remotely is a great way of avoiding infection, which is a risk associated with visiting a doctor’s office. You also need a safe way of getting your prescribed medications.

Tech-enhanced delivery services have you covered. They presort drugs so you know what to take when and how. According to a 2016 study, pharmacy delivery can increase drug adherence by 25%.

Amazon’s PillPack service presorts medications into single-serve packs labeled with the consumption schedule for each drug. All you need to do is submit your prescription on PillPack’s website and place an order. Within two hours, a courier will be handing you a parcel with your medications.

Automated remote patient monitoring

Smart devices and apps can take on a number of caregiver responsibilities. These include monitoring drug adherence, psychological support, and condition checks.

AI voice bots can regularly call a patient via a smartphone or landline, talk to them about how they feel and, if necessary, add a doctor to that call. Chatbots can also offer patients psychological support.

AI-powered trackers can be installed on medication bottles to track weight and detect when a bottle is opened. However, more sophisticated use cases for the technology have emerged recently.

Drug producer Otsuka has pioneered aripiprazole tablets, which have a tiny sensor made of natural ingredients. Once the pill has been swallowed, the sensor begins reporting to the mobile app and web dashboard. This allows doctors and the patient’s family to monitor their mood and drug adherence.

Digital therapeutics

Digital therapeutics (DTx) is evidence-based software used for personalized treatment, obviating the need for hospital visits. You can run this software either on your phone or complementary hardware.

DTx tools help prevent, manage, or treat conditions. The therapy uses video gaming, music, sensors, and all possible aspects of AI.

MedRhythms is a company that digitizes music therapy with a set of sensors. When installed on the body, these sensors stimulate the user’s brain, syncing their steps with the beat. This therapy helps patients recover the ability to walk that was lost to neurologic disease or injury.

Another prominent example is EndeavorRx by Akili Interactive. It is an FDA-approved game for improving attention in children with ADHD.

EndeavorRx game trailer

Remote wellness advisory

Daily stress, unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyle and other, less apparent factors threaten our health. Wellness advisors can help us mitigate those factors.

Visiting a wellness advisor takes precious time and, come another lockdown, can suddenly become impossible. Remote communication, coupled with software and wearables that help monitor health, activities, and habits, is a viable solution.

A health management platform, Virgin Pulse, offers coaching services for companies wishing to take care of their employees’ wellness. It connects those employees with experts in areas such as nutrition and psychology, via a mobile app and a smart bracelet.

Data management platforms

There are multiple tools for collecting all kinds of health data. Ideally, that data should be processed on one platform that interprets it in a unified format. This would allow doctors to see the big picture and make decisions that are really driven by data.

Right now, there are many medical data management tools, such as Redox, Intersystems, and Olio. Still, a unifying platform like that is yet to be built.

All-in-one tools

Tools that integrate all the above-listed categories in one place will be the ultimate advantage of telehealth.

Such tools will enable patients to self-diagnose, schedule an online consultation, order drug delivery and share their health data with their physician. Healthcare providers would use the tool to process patient requests, monitor patients’ health, handle their data, and provide them with medical advice.

Tools like those will make the patient journey through telehealth services smooth enough that even the least technically literate people will be able to use them.

For notable attempts to create such a tool, look no further than Amazon Care, a comprehensive app used by the company’s employees. It provides services such as online consultations, appointment scheduling, drug delivery, and more.

Wrap-up

Telehealth continues to develop, pushed by the pandemic. In the coming years, new categories and subcategories may emerge.

One thing is for sure: telehealth is making professional medical help more affordable, less stressful, and more accurate for patients. Medical providers, in turn, are enjoying cost-efficient operation and reduced pressure on their personnel.