Senior Tech Can Be Beneficial For Health Reasons
If there was one aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that worked in favor of older adults, it was using telehealth to help seniors stay in contact with their healthcare providers. Telehealth, also called telemedicine, saw rapid growth during the pandemic, and there are no plans to slow this process down.
Telehealth involves using mobile phones, laptops, tablets, and other forms of technology to provide health services from a distance. By using this process, seniors can conveniently stay at home to get services, which is a major benefit for those who have mobility issues, or have difficulty getting transportation, or live in rural areas and challenging climates.
“If you don’t have to get in the car when it’s 20 below zero to see a provider and walk on the ice, and you can have the exact same thing in your living room, people appreciate that,” Brad Gibbens, acting director, and assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine’s Center for Rural Health told AARP.
At the height of the pandemic, older adults were encouraged to stay home to protect themselves from the coronavirus disease. So, some healthcare providers turned to telehealth to keep in touch with their patients. According to the National Health and Aging Trend Study results, telehealth use during the outbreak jumped from 4.6 percent pre-pandemic to 21.1 percent. In addition, more older adults showed up for a telehealth conference than prior to the pandemic. The study found that no-show rates were significantly lower for telehealth visits during COVID-19 compared to no-show rates for in-office visits pre- and during COVID-19.
By using telehealth, older adults can receive the care they need in a way that works best for them. Telehealth also empowers older adults to take control of their health and well-being in a way that was not available to them before. For instance, older adults can install health-related apps on their mobile phones, smartwatches, and fitness trackers. By using these apps, seniors can set reminders to take medication, monitor their heart rate and blood pressure, keep track of their activity levels, send an alert if they have fallen, and access educational health information, among other things.
Some telehealth devices were developed from first-hand experience. For example, Nick Delmonico’s asthma and respiratory illnesses landed him in the emergency room and the ICU multiple times. As a result, Delmonico, founder of Strados Labs, a medical technology company, developed a smart sensor platform that has the ability to detect wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and other symptoms associated with pulmonary disease in real-time. Patients can connect to their healthcare providers, who can monitor these symptoms remotely and decide if they need immediate attention or a change in care plans.
Another example is Great Speech, a virtual speech therapy company that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and proprietary algorithms to match and assign a patient to a speech therapist based on a patient’s needs and the therapist’s expertise.
Telehealth Celebrates 30 Years But Faces Future Challenges
While some seniors may have discovered telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of combining technology and medicine is not new. In fact, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) celebrated its 30th anniversary at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, in March. Great Speech and Strados Labs were among the companies receiving awards at the conference for telehealth innovations.
Also, during the conference, ATA leaders highlighted the challenges in taking telehealth to the “next level,” which involves better integrating telehealth processes into the overall healthcare system.
“It’s now no longer about, ‘Let’s try to create the technology and implement it.’ It’s now about integrating it and making our operating model work right,” ATA Board Chair Kristi Henderson said in her keynote address at the conference. “It’s about changing policies, allotting incentives. This next level is really going to be a lot harder.”
With the theme of “From Now What? to How To! The Vision and Realities of Telehealth Adoption,” industry leaders focused on the next era of telehealth, which involves moving from point solutions (services, tools, devices, or programs that address specific issues) to fully integrate them into the healthcare system.
One of the primary obstacles to overcome is helping older adults who do not have access to the Internet or who have the Internet but do not know how to operate electronic devices in order to gain access to telehealth services.
In a study published in AMA Internal Medicine in 2020, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Medical School found that:
- More than 41 percent of Medicare recipients lacked access to a desktop or laptop computer with a high-speed Internet connection at home.
- Almost 41 percent of Medicare recipients do not have a smartphone with a wireless data plan
- More than 26 percent did not have access to either.
Henderson, who is also CEO of MedExpress and senior vice president of the Optum Center for Digital Health, supports a “hybrid model” that uses both physical and digital encounters.
“If we don’t work on this operating model and the workflows, I really think we’re going to continue to gravitate back to the physical world,” Henderson said.
One major challenge the telehealth industry is facing is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) proposal to tighten the limits on prescribing controlled medications through telemedicine after the COVID-19 public health emergency expires in May. During the pandemic, doctors were able to prescribe powerful opioids via telehealth. Now, the DEA plans to require doctors to see patients in person before prescribing addictive painkillers.
Other issues facing the telehealth industry include:
- The steps healthcare providers can take to better integrate telehealth processes for a “frictionless” healthcare experience.
- Developing an operating model which has clear guidelines as to when a doctor’s office should suggest a virtual visit first to a patient.
- How healthcare providers can make sure the telehealth process flows together with other established practices.
- How to build trust and give patients options based on their needs and desires.
Despite the challenges, industry leaders say they are seeing a willingness among medical professionals to integrate more remote processes into large healthcare systems. For instance, Kim Swafford, a health industry executive at Microsoft, said she worked at a tele-ICU company 20 years ago where providers were cautious about having cameras installed in rooms as part of remote support. They even covered the cameras with towels.
Prior to the ATA conference, Swafford said she was at a meeting where the physicians and the nurses were asking for a remote care team for telenursing and an expansion of tele-ICU services. “So, we have come a long way,” she said.
Bakul Patel, senior director of global digital health strategy and regulations at Google, predicts that the next 30 years will bring even more smart technologies that provide continuous health insights.
“Today’s telemedicine will not be tomorrow’s,” Patel said.