It is becoming clear that the future of health is increasingly digital and data-driven. The large-scale infrastructure investments in health information technology in recent years, such as electronic health records and health information exchanges, have been major factors underlying this development. Vendors and healthcare providers are now exploiting the opportunity to leverage this e-health infrastructure to advance technology-enabled strategies for delivering healthcare services virtually, engaging consumers in a more patient-centered model of care, and supporting providers in their ability to deliver healthcare services at scale. As a result, telehealth is set to become a standard of care for delivering and accessing services at scale.
Facilitating Care, Information, and Services
At its core, telehealth refers to the use of information and communications technologies to facilitate the delivery of medical care, health information and education, and public health services at a distance. The term “telehealth” encompasses a broad scope of applications, modalities for delivering services remotely, and user settings where services can be delivered and accessed. Today, telehealth is one of the fastest-growing service areas in healthcare, and a tipping point in its more widespread diffusion may be at hand. Industry thought leaders agree that realizing this outcome is highly dependent on advances in two areas: interoperability and cybersecurity, as described further below:
- Interoperability is key to advancing innovative care service designs and the underlying business models. The application of machine learning and other advanced analytical methods to a wide variety of data sources will drive value creation underlying telehealth service models, while the resulting predictive analytics will revolutionize the care delivery process. In the home setting, Internet-of-Things (IoT)-based services will proliferate through the use of wearables and other networked connected health technologies to enable a greater capacity for remote monitoring and making large patient-generated data sets available for integration with health and non-biomedical data for analysis. The home setting will also benefit from smart connected devices (e.g., Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant) that serve as the hub to support device connectivity and integrate data flow, as well as personal “digital health assistant” tools that provide decision support with healthy behavior change, while also delivering actionable insights that are customized and predictive in a context-aware and lifestyle-sensitive manner.
- The area of cybersecurity is critical for achieving scale. As the number of virtual interactions between patients and their providers and the data they generate increase, patient protection measures in the form of data security safeguards and provider authentication and verification methods to prevent fraud and abuse will become increasingly critical to the design of patient-centered telehealth solutions. A recent Deloitte survey found that approximately one-third (35%) of respondents have privacy concerns with the use of telehealth. No federal government agency at this time has the authority to enact privacy and security requirements to cover the scope of services that may be enabled through telehealth, many of which may fall outside of the provisions contained within HIPAA legislation. National telehealth accreditation standards, such as those recently announced by URAC, can help ensure that vendors meet rigorous standards for quality and consistency of services.
Seamless Integration of Technology in Delivering Health Services
It is conceivable that, in the not too distant future, the prefix “tele” will gradually fade from use as the technology-enabled elements for the remote delivery of services become more seamlessly integrated into care delivery systems to the extent that telehealth will become the standard for the delivery and access of care services. To realize that outcome will, however, rely on research to advance enabling technologies, innovative service designs, and business models, as well as practices that can support providers with the adoption, implementation, and spread of telehealth at scale.