Telehealth is already starting to transform healthcare in this country, but it’s about to get better. Like any system, it is only as strong as its weakest link. We love streaming movies, but when our network speeds are slow, it can be frustrating. And for rural communities slow network speeds can lead to more challenging communication. When your nearest doctor is 50 miles away and you depend on telehealth for your urgent and preventive care, you care about your network speed.
I remember when I first saw the power of telehealth many years ago in Chennai, India. Nurses drove off to the remote countryside in vans equipped with appropriate equipment, trained technicians, and satellite technology that would connect them with doctors back in the hospital. I can’t imagine that they had a great connection speed, but they made it work.
Today’s American users are much less patient with communication delays. We have become an instant gratification society and yet our healthcare hasn’t caught up. We text our friends and coworkers and expect them to reply within a minute. We order products online and expect the items to be at our doorstep the next day. And yet the average wait time to get a doctor’s appointment in this country is 29 days! Clearly we have a disconnect. Which is why the ability to see your doctor within minutes makes telehealth such a natural progression of healthcare for our society.
We have every indication that after enjoying the convenience of having a secure video chat with their doctor online and having their prescription sent electronically to their local pharmacy, that they will be about as excited to go the the doctor’s office as they are to actually have to step foot inside a bank! Granted there are times when it will be necessary to have a physical examination, but there are some exciting developments in home monitoring devices that will make these visits much less frequent. Today’s bluetooth devices allow your doctor to see inside your throat, your ears, check your temperature and your heart rate, all without ever leaving the comfort of home. Even OBGYNS are using telehealth for blood pressure and glucose monitoring to effectively manage obstetric patients. With the rapid advancement in wearables, the potential for our doctors to keep an eye on us remotely is both exciting and reassuring.
All of these amazing remote monitoring devices improve not only the convenience of care for urban patients but also the viability of effective care for rural patients where infant mortalities are 2x that of their urban sisters. But all of this remote monitoring requires the transfer of large files that can put a strain on communications networks, increasing congestion, slowing network speeds and thus negatively impacting the user experience. Poor connection quality can delay patient care which could hurt outcomes.
As the strain of data on our networks increases, 5G technologies have the possibility to open the pipes to handle the traffic we need. I recently attended the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco and 5G was one of the hottest topics there. What is 5G? 5G stands for Fifth Generation Cellular Wireless. It promises to deliver the speed of fiber over cellular networks. We may not see it in full swing until 2022 but speeds should start to pick up between now and then as carriers continue to install the multiple small cell sites needed to make the technology work. Carriers will install fiber optics to a cell site every few blocks and voila! Granted I’m over simplifying, but the end result will be an increase in speed of 10s of megabits per second. Our phones will get slimmer, driverless cars will really kick into gear, and telehealth with all of the bells & whistles of remote devices will become as common as your television.
Meanwhile I’ll still take an instant connection to my doctor over fighting traffic, waiting for a spot in a busy medical center parking lot and sitting for an hour or two in an overcrowded waiting room. But I’m still super excited about the increased collaboration between specialists and improved care for rural communities that faster networks will afford.