Is the Future of Telemedicine Sheldon Cooper on Steroids?

Katie Smart's profile picture
Katie Smart Sr. Manager, Global Marketing Communications
I recently attended a panel session at WebRTC World where one of my co-workers shared a project we’re working on with Revolve Robotics. The project involves a robotic device that Doctors can control via WebRTC telemedicine when having a video conversation with patients. Upon seeing this demonstrated one of the other panelists commented that it reminded him of “Junior Doctors” in the UK. Apparently, in the UK interns do rounds connected to senior medical staff via a video call. Often the intern is instructed where to position a camera on a tablet so a more senior Doctor on the other end of the call can get the proper view of the patient. The Revolve project involves using a robotic device to accomplish the same task. This reminded me of a recent episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon Cooper decided to use a virtual presence at work. In the episode Sheldon attaches a tablet to a robot and guides it through his day from the luxury of his bedroom. Is Dr. Cooper a foreshadowing of our future interaction with Doctors? For as long as I can remember the hospital and the doctor’s office was always thought of as “high tech." There were machines that beeped and little gadgets everywhere. But with the explosion of the technology in recent years, the healthcare industry has fallen behind. People within the healthcare industry even use the analogy that “healthcare is where the music industry was when they sold vinyl records.” I’ll let you think about that one for a second. So how do we fix a laggard process and bring a multi-billion dollar industry up to speed? With the execution of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and an aging population, the healthcare system in the United States lacks capacity and the resources to provide top level patient care. One way that healthcare providers are countering this lack of capacity and resources is by implementing video sessions between doctor and patient. This helps doctors see more patients, diagnose health issues sooner and reduce the time and cost for the patient who only needs a check-in. One argument against doctor/patient video calls is that doctors lack important vital information to make educated decisions. Fortunately, inventors have been coming up with new wearable technology that patients can use outside of the hospital to monitor vitals while on a video call with a physician or in between check-ups. Although some of the ideas out there seem to be a little farfetched, there are a lot of practical and beneficial wearable products that could revolutionize the healthcare system as we know it. Here’s a sampling of some of this emerging technology: AiQ Smart Clothing develops a vital sign monitoring system build into a t-shirt. The BioMan t-shirt measures the user’s heart rate, respiration rate as well as monitoring electrophysiological signals such as one’s EKG. A patient could wear the BioMan t-shirt while on a video appointment session with a doctor and the physician would be able to check vital signs without patient error. BodyTel is a German telehealth company that creates products such as a blood glucose meter and blood pressure meter for convenient home diagnostics. Yes, there have been products like this on the market for a while now but the BodyTel devices use Bluetooth technology to transmit all the data that the meters are tracking to a home monitoring station or smartphone. Then that data can be sent to your doctor for analysis. The device also will notify the doctor or healthcare professional when certain data exceeds or falls below a predefined threshold. This would be perfect for consistent monitoring of patients with chronic illnesses or those in need of a desperate lifestyle change. There are other “wearables” in the discussion that could easily be adopted on more of a mass scale in the near future that include sleek headsets to monitor brainwaves and even chips that are implanted underneath the skin for more long term tracking. Are we on the verge of bringing the house call back? From the earliest days of the practice of medicine doctors came to patient versus patients coming to Doctors. As late as the 1950s this was true, you simply sent a message to a doctor and he arrived at your door with his medical bag and a smile. By 2010 house calls had dropped to less than one percent of all doctor patient interactions. So what changed? Back in the 1920s three quarters of doctors were general practitioners by the 1980s this had dropped to less than one percent. Having a specialist show up at your door prior to being diagnosed simply didn’t make much sense. The issue of economics also drove the change away from house calls. Doctors can see more patients by having them come to the doctor. As technology evolved it also became impractical to carry much of the equipment necessary to do even the most basic of exams. With WebRTC and emerging wearables technology it is easy to envision the trend away back towards more house calls. Video calls make it more efficient for the doctor and patient to meet. Wearables provide a clear path for capturing vital information required for accurate diagnosis and WebRTC provides a clear path for combining this with the video call. Economically doctors will find that they can see more patients and bill more hours utilizing these new technologies. Just as Sheldon Cooper sent his virtual presence to work, doctors will make house calls with a virtual presence talking to the patient via a WebRTC video call and reviewing all key vital information captured by wearables and sent to the doctor via the WebRTC data channel. This vision may seem extreme, but the technology that enables it is rapidly emerging and finding its way into main stream applications. The convenience and economics of doctors making house calls with drive us back to the future.