Telemedicine technologically is ready to meet the growing demand for access to health services in developing nations and remote areas around the world, say experts from IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). However, widespread use of telemedicine will require greater collaboration between technologists and clinicians to ensure it delivers on its promises in the real world.
“From faster wireless networks to mobile imaging applications to biosensors, the technologies for delivering telemedicine services are certainly there,” says Yongmin Kim, IEEE fellow and professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering at University of Washington. “But advancing telemedicine through technology innovation alone is not enough. We now need to make it easier for the healthcare providers to embrace and apply these technologies in diverse medical environments.”
Yadin David, IEEE senior member and founder of the Centre for Telehealth and e-Health Law (CTeL) in Washington, DC, recommends healthcare providers and technologists agree on standards for minimum system performance of telemedicine networks and platforms, along with the development of a common vocabulary to describe these technologies.
“Healthcare providers can look at the technical description of a heart pump or X-ray machine and understand whether it will meet their requirements in delivering quality care to a patient. But how easily can radiologists, for example, understand whether the pixel resolution or compression rate of their video equipment will enable them to clearly see fine detail on images for more accurate diagnoses?” says Yadin David. “We need to translate technical criteria into the clinical domain to make it easier for healthcare providers to relate to it.”
For its part, IEEE is working to encourage the collaboration required for increased telemedicine adoption by bringing the technical experts in telemedicine together with the clinicians who must use it effectively. The IEEE Standards Association, a globally recognised standards-setting body within IEEE, has also been actively developing standards that contribute to telemedicine.
The global telemedicine market is expected to grow from $9.8 billion in 2010 to $23 billion in 2015, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.6 per cent over the next several years, according to BCC Research. Looking ahead, IEEE experts expect a number of technologies to play strategic roles in advancing the adoption of telemedicine including smartphones, wearable sensors and instrumentations.
For example, smartphones combined with high-speed mobile networks may be used to non-invasively monitor health conditions, such as blood glucose levels of diabetic patients. Further advancements in biosensors, such as longer lasting and more reliable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors that remotely monitor a patient’s risk for a heart attack, will also significantly improve the quality of and access to healthcare with minimal cost.
These innovations could be particularly beneficial in developing countries such as India where 70 per cent of the country’s population resides in rural areas compared to 90 per cent of the healthcare centres located in urban areas of the country. “The urban population has always had the benefit of specialized healthcare,” says Dinesh Bindiganavale, IEEE member and independent healthcare consultant. “Telemedicine is extending this benefit to the rural population and increasing access to quality healthcare where it is needed the most.”