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The Virtualization of Medicine: Benefits, Hurdles and Drawbacks

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There's no question about it - the entire health care industry is going digital or undergoing some form of virtualization. Between doctors and health professionals who are now willing to host online consultations, and insurance and medical practices relying on digital records and data analytics, we're witnessing the future of the health care industry: one that is primarily online.

The growing popularity of telehealth and telemedicine is an excellent example of how the industry is evolving, as well as the professionals and customers it serves. Physicians are more open to online streaming visits. Customers are more willing to use digital and advanced systems, including online health reporting tools to review test results, set up follow-up sessions and more.

The health care industry has even made the leap to social media, with a variety of people willing to share and conduct health dealings on public networks. Forty percent of consumers use social media to deal with their personal health. Meanwhile, 90 percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 claim they would trust medical information others shared on social media.

As this shift continues to become much more prominent, it forces us to consider the implications of such change. The benefits exist, surely, but what are they? What are the hurdles to optimizing use of these technologies and systems? More importantly, are there any drawbacks - and what does that mean for the industry at large?

Major Hurdle: Regulatory Oversight and Privacy Concerns

In health care, there are a variety of regulations and laws limiting hardware, software and even professionals to maintain security, privacy and reliability. Health care products, devices and machinery all undergo strict regulatory processes before being deployed. In addition, the EU regulatory environment is perhaps stricter than that of the U.S.

These processes can seriously hinder or slow innovation, especially pertaining to online and digital health care technologies. HIPAA law in the U.S., or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is an important piece of legislation that requires the utmost privacy and security for medical information. The law protects consumers and health professionals alike. It also raises serious concerns about the digital facilitation of medical records, including the storage and remote access of said information.

Major Hurdle: Social Stigmas Surrounding Online Health Care

Some health care professionals are willing to facilitate online sessions. However, there are just as many in the industry who look down on the practice - not just regarding conducting online sessions, but also providing medical advice via social networks and public channels.

For example, no matter how prestigious a health care provider is, there's never clear proof the person managing their social media account is qualified to offer professional advice. Considering 40 percent of those polled say information on social media directly affected how they coped with a chronic condition, that's concerning news indeed. How accurate is the information they're getting?

Furthermore, there's the matter of privacy and security. Conducting a doctor-patient relationship via social channels may compromise or sacrifice certain privacy and security matters just for the sake of convenience. How will virtual medicine affect not just the future of the industry, but future regulatory and policy enactments? Is it illegal, for instance, to provide a diagnosis over social media or streaming sessions?

It's likely the health care industry will address many of these questions and concerns eventually, but they're still a pressing issue in today's market state.

Major Drawback: Lack of Holistic Patient Information

One limitation of televisits and online checkups is that the professionals involved don't have access to extensive, holistic patient information. There's a good reason doctors peer into your ears and listen to your heart. It's not just routine - it provides them with additional information about your health that could lead to a correct diagnosis.

Furthermore, in-person patients have a comprehensive series of records, whether digital or physical. Health care professionals and nurses can use this information to make a proper diagnosis, improve wellness or even learn about a patient's genetic history. That's not the case for online professionals. In fact, they don't readily have access to the same information, which is locked behind a series of security and authentication protocols. This is especially true of social media, where accounts and patients can remain completely anonymous.

Major Drawback: Lack of Training in New Platforms and Experiences

Health care professionals go through years of extensive, hands-on training. However, their education doesn't necessarily include learning to use telehealth platforms. For example, many doctors likely have not experienced remotely working with their patients, delivering information across modern systems. Imagine a doctor who has never used social media trying to connect with patients on Facebook, Twitter or other networks.

Worse yet, virtual medicine is still very much a trial-by-fire process, because telehealth is still in its infancy - especially when it comes to using social media. Out of more than 1,500 hospitals in the nation with an active online presence, only 15 percent have a full-time social media manager on staff. This disparity highlights the need for training in modern platforms, social or otherwise, that aren't connected with modern health care directly.

A related issue is the fair-market value of telemedicine and online visits. What should a health care practitioner charge to see a patient for a quick online session? How do they determine value, especially based on experience or credentials? There are many complexities we don't fully understand, which the health care industry should remedy through training and research.

Major Benefit: Cross Greater Distances

Telecommuting and network communications, in general, open up so many opportunities when it comes to reach. For instance, a telecommuter located in the U.S. can work efficiently for a company in a completely different country. The same is true in the health care industry.

One major benefit from telehealth and online services is that doctors and health care professionals have a much wider reach and influence. They could provide services to remote patients, especially those unable to leave their homes or safe environments. Now, people who wouldn't otherwise have access to medical support can receive it.

Major Benefit: Collaboration Is More Accessible

Health care professionals are remarkably busy - which makes it difficult to not only schedule and organize appointments, but also to build a solid rapport with fellow industry professionals and influencers. So many health care professionals may benefit from increased collaboration with colleagues, which has traditionally been a challenge.  

Through streaming and telehealth services, however, collaboration becomes more than just a viable possibility - it becomes essential. An online professional might get in touch with a patient's local general practitioner, for example, to ask for their history and holistic care information.

Drawbacks and Hurdles Aside, We're In for a Bright Future

While there are definitely some drawbacks, hurdles and concerns, such as those related to privacy and security, the future is bright. Telehealth and online doctor visits will become commonplace for many who don't have the time or resources to make it to an in-person appointment.

Furthermore, virtualized medicine will advance the systems in place for many professionals, building more records and historical data to improve a patient's health. The outcomes for patients will also improve - just imagine someone who dreads visiting the doctor suddenly willing to partake in online and telecommute visits.

With all the potential it brings, the telehealth industry will undoubtedly work out the kinks to make the technology lucrative and beneficial to all.

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About the Author

Kayla Matthews is a tech-loving blogger who writes and edits ProductivityBytes.com. Follow her on Twitter to read all of her latest posts!

Image by Pixabay

Published Thursday, January 04, 2018 7:44 AM by David Marshall
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