Fifteen or 20 years ago, the idea that we all would one day carry around mini-computers through which we could access virtually all of recorded information — and use that same device to watch movies, listen to music or make a phone call — was incomprehensible. Look at us now: Our mobile devices changed everything.
Telehealth — a means for enhancing health care, public health, health education and support using telecommunications technologies — is positioned to have that same kind of impact on the health care and health-delivery industries worldwide.
In the U.S., a convergence of factors including escalating health care costs, an aging and therefore less healthy population and rapidly-evolving technology has produced nearly unprecedented development in this field, with some forecasting an annual compound growth rate of 16.5 percent through 2023. The American Medical Association reported the results of an insurance industry study that found a 53 percent increase in telehealth services from 2016 to 2017 — and, importantly, a 2 percent decrease in emergency room services.
The study doesn’t draw a direct link between the two, but physicians and other industry experts believe Telehealth reduces emergency room use because it gives patients direct access to a physician or health care professional for non-emergent conditions like fever, eye and ear infections, sprains or mild burns. This is particularly important in rural areas, at odd hours, or for patients with transportation issues.
One cost benefit analysis reported a projected $928,000 annual cost savings in a group of 5,570 patients when Telehealth was introduced to the typical 911 call for an EMS transport request.
Other studies have already demonstrated that Telehealth, specifically remote patient monitoring, reduces admissions and readmissions for patients with congestive heart failure. It’s not just the insurance companies and government saving money. A study of patients in rural areas found that with Telemedicine:
It’s clear that Telehealth will be a critical component to the future of health care delivery in the U.S. and around the world. Integral to that is network reliability and connectivity at optimal speeds. Slow network speeds and undependable connections could result in doctors missing real-time data they need to make quick health care decisions. 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity, allows for much faster download and upload speeds than previous technologies and could enable surgeons to conduct complex operations from the other side of the world with zero lag.
Today, roughly 21 cities in the U.S. have a 5G network in place. That number will increase dramatically over the next few years, as it must if the health care industry and patient population are to fully realize the cost savings and quality-of-care improvements telehealth is capable of delivering. Fortunately, the markets are responding. Industry insiders report that Internet of Things (IoT) platforms for the Telemedicine and Telehealth markets that were at $1.2 billion in 2016 are expected to reach $9.3 billion worldwide by 2023.
Moreover, as wireless and hardware manufacturing companies compete for contracts involving IoT and telehealth, financiers are recommending investing in what they’re calling the 5G revolution, including the big wireless companies, like AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, as wireless carriers upgrade to 5G infrastructure, such as network domains, increased spectrum holdings, radio access network (RAN) infrastructure, transmission, and core networks.
The investment in 5G and ancillary commodities that will drive the telehealth industry will spawn positive effects well beyond U.S. borders. Many predict a boon for the global economy, including $12.3 trillion of global economic output by 2035, with the global 5G value chain generating $3.5 trillion in output and supporting 22 million jobs. It is further forecast that “the value chain will invest $200 billion annually to expand and strengthen the 5G technology base within network and business application infrastructure.”
The best news yet is the huge financial IT investment is remaking the medical industry, including telehealth and telemedicine. In 2013, U.S. health IT investment was $2.8 billion. In 2017, it totaled $7.1 billion. Since 2011, health IT investments have increased 583 percent.
We are at an exhilarating point in the evolution of technology and health delivery when their convergence is set to propel them both, and us along with them, into an age of unprecedented growth and innovation that will change the face of health care as we know it. It’s going to be a fun and healthy ride.