Dr. Eric Topol: Why remote healthcare 'will be here to stay' after COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an accelerant to the use of technology in the remote healthcare space. And while it will not serve as the single solution to the pandemic, it will "be one of the lasting consequences," according to Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Despite its steady rise in use among healthcare providers for years, telemedicine has not yet become a mainstream form of patient interaction because it lacks the traditional element of the physical visit: hands-on care, Dr. Topol wrote in a March 31 op-ed for the Economist. The technology has also been bogged down by regulatory and commercial hurdles as well the need for a secure digital infrastructure to support patient and physician interactions.

As the global community faces a lockdown due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, remote healthcare and telemedicine have been integral to the healthcare industry's response, according to Dr. Topol. Rapid video visits between patients and clinicians are helping limit the spread of the virus, so people who may be infected with COVID-19 – both patients and physicians – do not expose others by going to the hospital.

During the pandemic, public health systems have been making remote healthcare easier to access. In March, CMS began covering telemedicine visits for Medicare patients and several states have issued requirements to insurers to do the same. In Seattle, University of Washington Medicine and Seattle Children's Hospital partnered with Amazon Care to deliver at-home coronavirus test kits to residents in the area.

"The social and medical practices that are happening in response to covid-19 will remain in place when the crisis eventually subsides," Dr. Topol wrote. "It will certainly apply to all elective, routine and out-patient visits. And for any infectious disease, including the seasonal flu, clinics will not want to risk exposing other patients (and their family members) as they sit in waiting rooms, nor risk infecting healthcare workers. Telemedicine will play the role of the first consultation, akin to the house-call of yore."

Dr. Topol highlighted several uses of technology that can support telemedicine and remote examinations, including "smart thermometers" that can detect flu outbreaks, wearable devices that measure heart rates and sensors that can continuously capture coughs, breathing rate and body temperature, among other data. 

Coupled with these advancements in telemedicine and remote monitoring technology, remote healthcare will never fully replace in-person care but will continue to serve as a useful asset and first line of defense in the healthcare space and during future pandemics, Dr. Topol wrote.


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