The Doctor will Skype You Now: How Telepresence is Changing the Medical Industry

A number of industries have benefited from breakthroughs in telepresence, but none more so than the medical field.

October 17, 2016 by Alex Collins

Telepresence – technology that lets a user project their presence over long distances – has taken a turn. Thanks to Moore's Law, the state of the art has improved to the point where interaction has become more seamless, even with users thousands of miles away.

A number of industries have benefited from this breakthrough, but none more so than the medical field.

Healthcare professionals have long needed an assist from technology. With a larger proportion of the population aging into senescence, doctors and nurses are having difficulty coping with a growing number of patients in their care.

Telemedicine corrects the imbalance by connecting medical professionals to their patients without requiring them to be in the same space simultaneously.

In its more simple forms, telemedicine simply requires a high-speed Internet connection between a professional and their patient.

medical_710Telemedicine: Time is of the Essence

Take Telestroke technology, the application of telemedicine in the field of stroke care. Recommended by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) “to improve stroke care in underserved areas” (source), the base model for telestroke uses a videoconferencing app to connect an attending neurologist and nurse to their patient. This simple setup is sufficient for a professional to evaluate their patient's motor skills, share information remotely (like a CT scan), make a diagnosis and recommend a treatment.

When treating strokes, time is of the essence – a victim must be treated within three hours of a suspected stroke to enjoy a significantly reduced risk of permanent injury or death. Telestroke services drastically reduces response time by reducing or eliminating the need for a patient to travel to a doctor, or vice versa!

More sophisticated forms of telemedicine call for a telepresence robot – a remotely-operated monitor-camera-speaker setup mounted on wheels – that allows doctors to remotely make diagnoses and perform simple checkups.

InTouch Health's RP-Vita is remarkable not only for its sophistication (it can independently navigate hospital hallways to reach a patient selected by its remote operator), but also for being the first telepresence robot to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 510(k) clearance. This legally permits the robot's use in active patient monitoring in most non-intensive care settings.

Once it's arrived at the chosen bedside, RP-Vita can connect to a stethoscope, ultrasound, or other diagnostic tool to help the operator on the other end make a diagnosis.

Telemedicine's Benefits Outweigh Perceived Limitationsmed_chart_710

A few issues need to be ironed out before doctors can begin piloting RP-Vitas en masse. First, the high cost of telepresence robots (at the moment) slows down widespread adoption (each RP-Vita robot costs up to $6,000 a month to operate). Secondly, medical licensing issues might hamper doctors licensed in one state from remotely treating patients in another.

Third, cybersecurity concerns may prevent their widespread use. Off-the-shelf telepresence solutions may be cheaper, but they're also easier to hack – there's a very real danger of hackers impersonating doctors over telepresence!

Once those concerns are addressed by improved technology and revised regulation, the benefits of telemedicine may be seen to outweigh any perceived costs and risks.

“If you’re at the right place at the right time, you can get the best healthcare in the world. But if you’re not, you don’t have access to quality healthcare or it costs too much,” says Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, the makers of the RP-Vita. “This technology is about enabling the delivery of consistent, high-quality care, which then drives the costs of our healthcare system down.”