The July 11, 2015, edition of the New York Times reported that some users of telemedicine services can recoup costs through their medical insurance. That insurance story may be important, yet it’s not the big story. The big story is that healthcare is now on the threshold of two ground-breaking developments, and both are made possible by computer technology. The first is telemedicine, a subset of which is called “virtual doctor visits,” or “virtual consultation,” and the second is “big data.”
In a virtual consultation, a doctor remotely diagnoses a condition by speaking to the patient using a system such as Skype, and conducting a visual examination with the computer’s camera. The doctor may then prescribe medication and email or fax the prescription to the patient’s local pharmacy. Technically, this is telemedicine, but telemedicine’s future promise extends far beyond today’s virtual doctor visits.
To a limited extent, advanced telemedicine systems already exist. They include remote patient monitoring technology (RPM). RPM is currently used mainly to monitor the physiological parameters of patients with existing chronic illnesses like congenital heart failure and diabetes. These systems usually check blood pressure, blood glucose level, and blood oxygen saturation. RPM is also used to monitor patients with dementia. Sensors affixed to canes and walkers detect patients’ locations, and by clever measurement of their gait, linear acceleration and angular velocity, determine the likelihood of them falling, and so alert care personnel.
As impressive as this technology may be, the future envisaged by some visionary medical scientists is truly astonishing. They base their predictions on widely accepted projections about how current technology and medical science will advance in the short to medium term. They predict that the medical data of millions of people will be anonymously shared and compared by powerful software in enormous databases. By finding obscure links in the data, that software will discover and extract valuable new medical information that should lead to cures for currently incurable diseases and major improvements in treating most of the others. Moves in that direction are already in train with companies like Calico, a Google subsidiary, which plans to use its huge databases for medical research. Another innovative company in this field is Human Longevity Inc. This company promotes research into the genetic factors of aging through its database of human genotypes and phenotypes — the largest database of its kind on Earth.
In a few decades, miniature wearable or implanted devices will eliminate the need for most, if not all, GP visits. It’s even likely that the technology will eliminate the need for most GPs because our inbuilt sensors connected wirelessly to cloud based medical computer centers will constantly keep track of our health. The system will identify potential problems well before they become threats and decide on the best course of action. If an issue is acute, the system will automatically alert emergency services. For less serious problems, it will tell the patient what to do. If that involves a hospital or clinical visit, the system will automatically make the arrangements.
Such constant monitoring of our health by highly sensitive measuring devices will have another huge benefit. It will virtually eliminate unforeseen serious health issues, like strokes, heart attacks, and cancers. So ambulances and emergency rooms may be needed only to deal with accidents.
There’s little doubt that telemedicine and big data will bring about dramatic improvements in everybody’s health, at least in the developed world. In addition, with so much sophisticated technology constantly monitoring people’s health, insurance premiums will drop. Any reduction will probably be offset by the cost of linking up to the new computerized health systems, so in the end, people probably won’t save money. They will, however, enjoy longer and healthier lives, and you can’t put a price on that.