It’s no surprise at this point that the COVID-19 pandemic turned the digital healthcare world (and the rest of the world) inside-out, accelerating the use of telemedicine while throwing a wrench into the plans of anyone depending on a somewhat predictable 2020.
“Back in January, I had friends who were reading reports about how telehealth had reached its apex” and the height of its expansion, said Christopher Lee, cofounder of the virtual second opinion platform InfiniteMD (recently acquired by ConsumerMedical). “The investment sphere was looking elsewhere.”
Lee, along with one of his InfiniteMD cofounders, Babak Movassaghi, told Healthcare IT News that the surge in telehealth use is just one facet of the changes the digital health sphere will see over the next few years.
“It took a global pandemic to shift something that seemed very obvious,” said Lee.
“Given the fact that uptick exploded, I think both patients and physicians are looking to see – rightfully so – what other things we can deliver digitally,” he continued.
Movassaghi and Lee, who met at the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology before cofounding InfiniteMD with Liz Kwo in 2016, predict that artificial intelligence and augmented reality will both soon occupy larger roles in the digital healthcare landscape.
“More and more people are becoming health-aware. They’re buying a lot of apps and gadgets that they can use in home. In-home monitoring, self-assessment, and the huge push into utilization of AI chatboxes to remotely diagnose you, or put you in the box to see [you] if you need follow-up care,” are all trends that are taking on steam, said Lee.
When it comes to AR and virtual reality, Movassaghi pointed out that many physicians are already using both tools when it comes to medical education, particularly when it comes to laparoscopic surgery.
In the future, he predicts that physicians will be able to use AR technology to see a patient’s electronic health record while looking at them – with their information legible in their tool’s field of vision, “like an F-15 pilot.”
From the patient side of things, with regard to treatment Movassaghi noted that VR headsets have been developed for physical therapy use and to reduce pain.
They could also be used to augment telehealth, he said. Rather than looking at your doctor via a laptop or iPad screen, a patient can, in this scenario, go in person to a clinic with nursing staff and use a VR headset to communicate with a physician in real time.
Such services aren’t available yet. But “technology-wise, we’re basically there,” added Lee.
Although the hardware and software are in various stages of development, Lee and Movassaghi pointed to three main hurdles to innovation.
The first, they said, is reimbursement: “There’s entire market segments that are killed” because there’s no economic justification for developing a product, said Lee.
The second is regulatory issues. As exemplified in the relaxation of restrictions around telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis, federal regulations can present logistical barriers to implementation of virtual care.
And the third, said Movassaghi and Lee, is people – both patients and clinicians.
“A lot of it is convincing people that hey, a computer program can do it better. Maybe having AR/VR will help you deliver better medicine,” Lee said.
“People do things based on how they were trained, where they get their residency,” he continued. Inertia around preferred tool usage, or the lack thereof, can be a powerful force.
Movassaghi argued, however that change is around the corner: “We are getting a new generation of physicians that are getting more experiment-friendly and getting more outside the box.”