As we enter the eight-month milestone of the COVID-19 crisis, many of us have gradually become acquainted with telemedicine, either as a patient or a caregiver. While remote health is not a recent invention and has been around for decades, it took the pandemic for it to cross the threshold into mainstream use.
This surge in use was driven by the clear ability for patients to receive care without increasing their risk of exposure to COVID-19, and bolstered by emergency measures that have facilitated reimbursement of this health service, which will certainly play a role in the continued and future uptake of this form of health technology.
At the same time, the proliferation of health tech – including but not limited to telemedicine – brings with it some critical considerations that patients, healthcare professionals, the industry and government should factor into their decision making.
Healthcare innovation for the public should be universally accessible across all classes of society, cultures and markets. Telehealth offerings should factor in patient diversity, including socio-economic, cultural and language needs.
The value of telemedicine is dependent on where a patient stands on the “digital divide” – the technological gap between the underprivileged in our society and the affluent. In addition to having a strong, reliable Internet connection and being tech-savvy enough to utilize the digital offerings, the ability to effectively seek and secure the needed care is also dependent on health literacy, an issue made more acute in the absence of an in-person medical visit.
The tech giant Alphabet has made headway in this arena, with initiatives to map U.S. health disparities and improve clinical trial enrollment in women and people of color. Expect to hear more from other major tech players such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – each of whom have broadened their footprint in health in recent years.
Privacy and Security
Data privacy around the use of the Internet extends to very personal matters where health is concerned. Keeping HIPAA in mind is all the more important in digital communications, where data integrity and clarity around patient access and data ownership will be critical to instilling confidence in the technology. In addition, patient confidence in the robustness of the IT system and security protocols of all stakeholders in the healthcare chain with access to the information will be critical.
In the face of a pandemic, proponents of such health technologies speak to the public benefit. This should rightfully be balanced with scientific validity, preserving autonomy and avoiding discrimination.
The wide range of familiarity and differing levels of experience among telemedicine users call for industry regulation as well as guidelines. Healthcare stakeholders would benefit from industry consensus around self-policing to ensure basic requirements for patient protection are met. An early example of such a code of conduct comes from the British government, which seeks to provide guidance on data-driven health and care technology.
Building Bilingual Experts in Science and Tech
As health tech and med tech become a more integral part of the healthcare offering, the need for more “bilingual” experts who speak both the languages of Cambridge and Silicon Valley (i.e., healthcare and tech, respectively) will be essential. As important as it is for digital health products to be built with the best technology, what is equally critical is to ensure that the technology accounts for the user experience that takes place within the healthcare system. This would mean understanding the everyday workflow of healthcare professionals, the patient journey for the disease in question and the needs and priorities of the families at each point. Good technology that frustrates and alienates the intended users will not result in the technology being used at all.
The jury is still out on which tech company can most successfully tackle healthcare, or which healthcare company will do best at leveraging tech. For some, it’s not even so black and white. Yet to the patients, doctors and the rest of the healthcare community who stand to gain most, we are simply rooting for them to take the right approach on their way there.
Leadership is critical in this fast-evolving field. As healthcare communicators at Current Global, we are strong advocates of the role that communications play in this new world. Even as technology becomes an integral part of healthcare, our approach remains steadfastly in humanizing innovation that is rooted in responsible communications of people-focused outcomes. As decorated U.S. army general Omar Bradley opined many decades ago, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”
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