Boring waiting rooms, tongue depressors, the smell of disinfectant; there are many things to dislike about going to the doctor. But if you or a loved one falls sick, there’s nothing more valuable than easy access to healthcare.
Providing better access for everyone is one of the great challenges of our time. While there is still a long way to go, I’m encouraged to see how technology is helping – particularly as we grapple with the pandemic.
COVID-19 has forced us to social distance and reduce face-to-face contact everywhere, including between doctors and patients. The pandemic has also put great strain on medical systems and resources. Virtual and remote healthcare solutions are helping us meet these types of challenges.
Virtual, smart, and really remote
In China, a telemedicine platform was pushed live in just 10 days, so that patients in remote areas and others unable to visit a medical center in person now have access to quality healthcare.
India’s largest provider of cancer care, HealthCare Global (HCG) responded by using Microsoft Teams to carry out virtual consultations. By doing so, they have demonstrated how technology can make cancer care more accessible and affordable, even for patients from abroad.
Dr. B.S. Ajai Kumar, CEO and chairman of HCG, explains, “Think about our patients from Kenya, Iraq, or Vietnam. Why should they come here and stay for regular follow-ups if they can do virtual consultations? They should come to the hospital only when they absolutely need to.”
Besides virtual consultations, other technologies like AI are also making a huge difference. Let’s look at Austin Health, which is based in Melbourne, Australia. With help from Microsoft, they have developed a COVID-19 self-assessment tool. A patient self-reports their symptoms using audio recordings, for example, counting to 30 and saying the word “ah.” An algorithm analyzes the recordings and alerts a doctor who then conducts a virtual consultation with the patient. Ultimately, this system is focused on patient safety. They receive timely consultations and appropriate treatments without the need for face-to-face contact.
Meanwhile, HoloLens, the untethered mixed reality (MR) headset device, is taking virtual and remote consultations to the next level. For example, this technology means patients on remote islands in Japan can receive real-time virtual specialist medical care from the Nagasaki University Rheumatoid Arthritis Remote Medical System (NURAS).
It works something like this: A local island doctor wearing a HoloLens headset can provide a specialist at the university’s hospital with a real-time 3D view of the subject, such as a close-up view of a patient’s hand with arthritis. In many cases, this type of virtual specialized examination eliminates the need for a patient to travel long distances to the hospital or to wait for a long time for an appointment.
In Taiwan, a similar system is in place. There, general practitioners and nurses are using HoloLens during house calls in tandem with specialist physicians miles away. This effectively upgrades a standard house call to a specialist consultation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the healthcare industry’s ability to adapt and transform. As it becomes increasingly virtual in nature, the need for in-person medical consultations might decrease in the years to come. Meanwhile, wearable technologies based on AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) have the potential to monitor patients remotely and continuously, freeing up doctors to focus on other more pressing cases.
Three must-haves for greater access
Here are three key lessons for healthcare organizations on how to use technology to make their services more accessible to patients:
- Chatbots and Symptom Checker: Many healthcare organizations have already implemented a basic Q&A chatbot on their websites for visitors with general inquiries. A symptom checker is a more enhanced chatbot able to ask about symptoms that a user is experiencing. Microsoft’s Azure Health Bot solution allows organizations to deploy such chatbots at scale. Like the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker. The checker asks about the general symptoms of COVID-19, and if the user answers “yes” to any, they’ll be instructed what to do next.
- AI Models: AI is capable of processing and analyzing large amounts of data related to the patient, including radiology, pathology, MRI scans, etc. This gives a doctor a complete overview of the patient’s condition during the health screening process, allowing a more precise treatment based on the analytics/recommendations made by AI. In Australia, NSW Health Pathology is delivering faster diagnosis and care for patients regardless of where they are, and in South Korea, Lunit has developed INSIGHT CXR, an AI software solution built on Azure that reviews chest x-rays and instantly alerts doctors if it finds signs of COVID-19 infection.
- Teams and Connect: Connecting to colleagues and patients is crucial to giving the best care possible in a pandemic. With services like Microsoft Teams, doctors and nurses can coordinate and plan the best course of action for each patient from anywhere. For instance, “tumor board” meetings – made up of specialist physicians who jointly work out how to best treat cancer patients – are often hard to schedule face-to-face. But with a Teams call, doctors can get together virtually making it easier to reach clinical decisions. Connecting virtually can also work across borders. Holographic images captured by HoloLens can be easily shared with medical experts across the globe at any time, showing clinical examinations and procedures in action. It provides information and messages that are clear, effective and potentially lifesaving.
There’s no denying that COVID-19 has accelerated technology adoption in all industries, including healthcare. It is allowing telehealth services to enter the mainstream. By using technology to increase the “throughput” at healthcare facilities, more patients can be treated and at a lower cost.