How Is Technology Transforming Healthcare Access?

What if you were told that more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than have access to clean water or a toilet?  According to a 2016 report by the World Bank, this is actually a fact.  This alone shows how prevalent technology is in today’s world – that it can be viewed as much a necessity as clean water and a place to go to the bathroom.  Because of this worldwide prevalence of technology, it is important that it is incorporated into healthcare in attempt to provide access to as many people as possible.  In many ways, technology has completely infiltrated the healthcare world.  From the care process through improved treatment and surgical techniques, to public health improvement with EHR information, to using big data to identify points of cost reduction and improve quality of care, technology is infiltrating every part of the healthcare system.  Perhaps the most impactful way that technology has transformed the healthcare system, however, is through the increased prevalence of telehealth.

By most impactful, I mean that telehealth has transformed the way many patients are able to receive care.  While many technological advances happen behind the scenes or are only seen in certain procedures, telehealth and mobile visits have allowed patients to receive consultations, medical advice, and even prescriptions on a much more on-demand and convenient basis.  According to a New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst article written in 2017 by the CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, Dr. Robert Pearl, Kaiser Permanente conducted 14 million virtual visits in 2015 and slightly over 15 million in-person visits.  The number of virtual visits is expected to outnumber in-person visits by the end of 2018.

The same NEJM Catalyst article also stated that, with urgent care tele-visits, the problem the patient presents can be resolved over the phone 80 percent of the time, and video visits can solve 60 percent of the remaining patient problems.  To further exemplify the benefits of virtual visits, 90 percent of patients reported that they were either very or extremely satisfied with their care and advice they received.  This number doesn’t even include those who were simply satisfied, meaning that less than ten percent of patients were not satisfied with their care.  It’s possible that wait times have a huge impact on this, as wait times are one of the largest indicators of patient satisfaction scores.  The virtual visit not only increases convenience by allowing the patient to have a consult in the comfort of their own home or convenient location, it also reduces the lengthy time spent in medical office waiting rooms.

However, despite the many benefits of telehealth, there have been some disappointing findings regarding the actual health outcomes.  According to a 2017 study conducted at The University of Wisconsin, there was actually no observable improvement in patient health for those who utilized telehealth services.  Although disappointing, this doesn’t completely dismiss the plausibility that telehealth is improving access to care.  This same study found that telehealth programs added a six percent increase in patient visits as a result of implementing telehealth.

Unfortunately, telehealth is still new enough that the benefits are not yet fully known.  What is known is that increases in visits are allowing more people to access care than ever before and that healthcare is becoming increasingly convenient to receive.  Although concerns remain about the impact virtual visits actually have on factors such as cost and provider productivity technology is allowing more people to gain access to much-needed healthcare.  As large systems such as Kaiser Permanente are demonstrating, virtual visits are only going to continue to increase in their role in today’s healthcare landscape.  After all, mobile phones are becoming a necessity more people have than clean water, so including basic healthcare access as part of mobile phone ownership can help more people receive the care and health education they need.