Now more than ever, patients and the general public are looking to healthcare providers for immediate answers, treatment, and reassurance. With the novel coronavirus further heaping stress upon health systems, their employees, and their patients, the benefits of telemedicine are increasingly seen as a boon for the healthcare industry. Telemedicine can increase functionality, minimize physical contact, and open the door to an even broader set of potential uses, both now and with the continued emergence of artificial intelligence in telemedicine.
The pieces are certainly in place for the medium to make a surge. Earlier in the pandemic, President Donald Trump waived certain federal rules that, in turn, made it easier for providers to offer telehealth services, a reaction the administration followed with similar measures in August. On the healthcare side, doctors (and their patients) have reaped the benefits of telemedicine and advanced communications and infrastructure technology. A Chinese surgeon who famously removed an animal's liver remotely by directing robotic equipment over a 5G mobile connection is just a small example of things to come. Let's look at the burgeoning group of technologies — including AI in telemedicine — and learn more about its present and future applications.
More Than Just Convenience
It's a sunny Saturday afternoon and your daughter has just come back into the house after playing in the backyard. She shows you a rash on her arm and says she feels ill. It might be a simple heat rash, but there have been some cases of meningitis in your neighborhood. Probably nothing to worry about, but you decide it's best to have an expert check it out all the same.
Fortunately, it's easy for even smaller systems to implement advanced communication features nowadays. As you log in to the app, an SMS pops up. It's a two-factor authentication code allowing you to confirm your identity.
With that out of the way, you decide to try your provider's new service: a tool that triages nonemergency incidents. You don't think your situation currently qualifies as an emergency, so you decide to give it a shot.
You tell the app you're concerned about a rash. It asks you to point the phone's front-facing camera at the affected area. Moments later, you're in a video call with a general practitioner, who looks at the rash in person and tells you what to do next.
Everything mentioned in this hypothetical situation is possible today. How do we achieve it?
Ten years ago, it seemed that telemedicine would require expensive and dedicated videoconferencing equipment using expensive and dedicated network connections. It would be a major understatement to say the emergence of the digital era changed that perception. Patients today can access vital health services via laptops or smartphones, receiving care that's often less expensive for everyone involved and less demanding on the patient.
On the provider side, cloud communication APIs have made it easy and affordable for developers everywhere to build video, voice, and text communication directly into their apps. A combination of reliable high-speed mobile data, cloud communications APIs, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence will soon further improve this capability.
Consider the AI-augmented interaction described above. The app verifying your identity via two-factor authentication would almost certainly do this via an embedded communications API, such as Vonage's popular Verify API.
From there, you interacted directly with the AI powering the automated triage system. There wasn't a human on the other end (yet), but the beginning of the interaction nonetheless took place over a video call as the AI needed to access and analyze the image you shared. In this instance, a video API makes it possible to take the camera output from a smartphone and send it to any endpoint device: another person or intelligent software alike.
Benefits of AI in Telemedicine: New Frontier
Following that, then, it's easy to see the emergence of AI as another major force in the benefits of telemedicine — an advancement that will only increase efficiency, promote better outcomes, and bring savings to organizations.
Obviously, we're a long way away from anything resembling an automated healthcare system, a far-flung system in which we may rely on machines for diagnosis, prescriptions, and other vital roles currently occupied exclusively by humans. Even then, the possibility of exciting new advancements to emerge is hard to ignore.
Consider an AI system like that described above which uses some form of wireless temperature gauging (a wireless thermometer, for instance) to scan a patient's temperature while they fill out a live-updating symptom questionnaire. This tool could be used for anything from test-recommendation diagnosis to calming worried patients' nerves about contracting COVID-19 or the flu. Relevant data taken from these mediums automatically populate a telemedicine professional's screen when they perform their live consult, removing needless interactions and ensuring the physician can focus precisely on what matters.
This is effectively what the benefits of telemedicine look like now — and they'll continue to grow in functionality as the medium and the technologies that comprise it do. It can be hard to feel optimistic in such an unprecedented public health event, but AI, communication technology, and telemedicine nonetheless remain a bright point.