We sat around a little table in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN. Like every morning before, her neighbor, Phil, stopped by for a cup of coffee. He walked in with his eight-pound cylinder of oxygen in tow. His silver spoon clinked the edges of his glass as he stirred his coffee. At 86-years-young, he proudly maintained a smirky sense of humor and teased us for adding three spoonfuls of sugar to our coffee. That was over 18 months ago now. It seems like life was simpler back then.
Sadly, Phil’s age and chronic condition place him in the “high risk” category for COVID-19. Along with events like birthday parties and wedding ceremonies, our coffee visits, too, have become virtual. I can’t help but think how technology has potential to enable people like Phil to simply live a “normal” life during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Making patient care virtual and safer
The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those global events that triggers new behavior. Patients and physicians are embracing the moment with a combination of technology and social distancing to achieve safer health management by avoiding contact with the virus.
At first, we saw medical practices respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by setting up telehealth services — video conferencing technology that complies with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy laws and enables virtual patient care. Widespread availability of telehealth has meant patients can consult with doctors without leaving home, and thus minimize the risk of coming into contact with the virus. So where do we go from here?
Medical devices that rely on IoT (Internet of Things) technology will have the next major role to play in contact-free patient care. By leveraging the internet and wireless connectivity to transmit patient data — such as blood pressure, weight, and heart rate — to physicians in real-time, RPM (remote patient management) devices provide another layer to the social-distancing protection offered by telehealth. With RPMs, the same HIPAA privacy laws apply, but physicians are even better able to meet the patients “where they are” and further minimize exposure to coronavirus.
RPMs are not only practical; they make life safer during a pandemic
Using RPMs for COVID safety builds upon the original purpose of RPMs. When the technology was first introduced decades ago, the goal was to prevent treatable conditions from becoming chronic by making doctor visits more practical. For example, by monitoring a patient’s blood pressure data in real-time, physicians could remotely manage issues such as spike and dips.
Now, the need for social distancing is creating a new set of RPM benefits around safety and virus avoidance.
RPM adoption poised to increase
Overall, patients with wearable medical devices enjoy convenience, improved quality of care, peace of mind, and deeper knowledge about their health condition. Likewise, physicians are able to deliver a higher-quality of care to more patients, and with lower costs and higher efficiency. A study of remote patient management found:
- 69% of healthcare professionals ranked RPM the number one reducer of overall healthcare costs
- 71% of healthcare professionals ranked RPM, wearables, and caregiver collaboration tools as most impactful on patient experience and care coordination
- 62% of patients said RPM devices that track and send data to their doctors would help them manage their condition
- 40% of elderly people want access to technology that alerts physicians and caregivers
The appetite for RPM is strong, but challenges remain
There is consensus among patients and medical professionals that RPMs enhance their confidence in overall medical condition. Despite the high approval marks, RPMs have met with adoption barriers in the medical world which mostly comes down to cost. Who is going to pay for this technology? Regardless of who pays, product managers and developers of these solutions have some control over the realistic deployments of RPMs when building out the architecture. To that end, the wireless technology used for a successful RPM solution will need to address two key elements driving adoption: low cost and high reliability.
Affordable RPM solutions: For seniors on a low, fixed income, and who are the primary users of RPMs, paying for the RPM device itself can be a challenge. This is especially true for those who depend on government-funded medical care. There will be little appetite to purchase devices perceived as adding to healthcare costs. In the United States, the number of state Medicaid programs that reimburse for RPMs are increasing, but the total is still only around half. And that may be hard to change with a growing 65+ population. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of Americans ages 65+ is projected to nearly double from 52M in 2018 to 95M by 2060. That’s about one quarter of the entire predicted population. All of this means that if something doesn’t change to control the cost of RPM solutions, then more and more people could continue to be at risk and without access to potentially lifesaving technologies.
Reliable transmission of data: The patient-physician relationship relies on trust, so reliability is a priority. For example, a patient with a heart condition may live in rural North Carolina where cell towers are abundant, but Wi-Fi and broadband services are not. Before committing to an RPM, patients may ask: Will my cellular bill be out of control if my heart monitor is constantly sending and receiving heart-rate data from miles away? Will my oxygen-saturation data transmit in real-time over cellular, or will a lag time delay my medical care? Will my privacy be protected by HIPAA to the same degree as an in-person visit? RPM solutions must be able to answer yes to these questions.
IoT opportunities for remote healthcare in the age of COVID-19
As mentioned in the study above, the desire to embrace remote patient healthcare has existed for years. Now, with the onset of the pandemic and the need for social distancing, the demand is speeding up.
For IoT managers eyeing the opportunity in remote healthcare, the key to success is solving the challenges in adopting wearable medical devices: The RPM solution must:
Be inexpensive – patients who need remote healthcare are looking for an RPM device they can afford.
Offer mission-critical cellular connectivity, no matter where the device is transmitting from – whether it’s a rural location or a travel destination, patient data needs to flow in real-time and inexpensively over cellular.
The ubiquity of the pandemic, advances in RPM and IoT technology, and the ability to offer reliable, affordable service over cellular is giving IoT managers a unique role to play. They can help solve the most pressing global challenge by making healthcare social-distance friendly, faster, better, and cheaper.