Imagine being able to affect healthcare from a distance and access patients and doctors from all different corners of the world. Well you don’t have to, it’s already here. Virtual care, also known as telehealth, is using technology to have remote medical encounters between two parties. It’s part of a broader group, called digital health, that includes apps, virtual and augmented reality, machine learning, algorithms, genomics – everything that will lead us to more personalized medicine.
I started out in this field by taking a chance on, what was in 2013, a small startup. When I began it seemed that increasing patient and provider engagement to this new health modality was insurmountable. However, as I got more experience, transitioned to an academic center where I run a program, started teaching not only telehealth but also digital health, I realized there is a tremendous amount of data and tech that needs evaluation and validation to be implemented successfully into healthcare. I do firmly believe in digital health, telehealth and that these technologies can be used successfully in healthcare for three main reasons.
Firstly, patients use it. Technology has changed our lives tremendously in the last decade and much of our lives are dependent on it. Healthcare is structured around us; the healthcare workers and we expect our patients to come to us for their care. However, all of the day to day choices, events, our health happens mostly outside those small slivers of time where the patient is in front of us. We can leverage the solutions already available to care better for patients at home and imagine what that would mean – we could evaluate home situations that affect health and leverage more family members to be involved. I’ve had that experience multiple times. While some are concerned that this will affect how we are able to connect as humans, the truth is that nothing is more personal than seeing someone where they are comfortable and seeing what they are like in a home environment. We have to remember they are inviting us there and treat it as such – a small glimpse into their world, a world we may be able to affect with small changes in their health.
Second, health innovation is also going to change the way we practice, what can be done more efficiently, what we even have access to. Telehealth practiced between providers allows for our colleagues in rural or resource poor areas to get a video consult with a specialist. The specialist can do a video consult, evaluate the workup and aid in creating a plan of action whether that means transfer or keeping the patient in their local hospital. This is practiced all over the world and helps improve patient care and allows our colleagues to feel less isolated. Digital health solutions are going to give us more automation whether that means triaging patients to level of care, reading radiology studies, improving what data we can access from patients sitting at home. It may seem futuristic but the base is there; what’s missing is our research to ensure that these things are safe. However, with sustained and thoughtful investigation, there’s no reason to believe we can’t do this.
Lastly, it will change our whole system, it’s going to change everything. We can’t even fathom the ways that our practice will evolve but I assure you the way we practice now is not what we will be doing in twenty years. Our students and residents will be doing this even more differently. Our role is to take an active role to affect that change – to ensure technology is not leaving behind groups that are traditionally left out of innovations. We have to advocate for marginalized groups, ensure that machine learning is including unbiased data, and make sure what we do is safe, effective and necessary for both patients and ourselves.
This ability to understand telehealth’s pitfalls and potentials, realizing that I can help my colleagues understand it and that I can affect a small change to medicine is why I do what I do. However, this future is for everyone. I want to challenge all of you to be part of that change, not be afraid of the evolution of medicine and remember that it is our responsibility to use these new tools to create the future health care system that is equitable, accessible and effective.
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