The United Kingdom’s ageing population represents a real challenge for the National Health Service (NHS). It’s due to this that new models, ones which take advantage of new technologies, have to be explored and ultimately implemented if they can be beneficial to the public.
It’s estimated that between 1.6 to 1.7 million people in the UK have some form of remote telecommunications support, making it an area of considerable interest for health departments who are looking to lessen the strain that’s being put on the NHS. It’s a similar picture in the United States too, with the amount of people aged over 50 expected to rise to 133 million by 2030, a 70% increase since 2000.
The issues that come with our increased longevity are mainly centred around the time it will take someone to get an appointment - as we’re all more susceptible to illness as we get older. In order to improve the situation, telehealth has been touted as the new model which it’s hoped will shift patient care out of doctors surgeries and to the comfort of patients own homes.
American Well, a leading provider of telehealth software, launched its telehealth platform in 2008. Its latest instalment ‘AW8’ is a mobile application that allows the public to have their appointment through their tablet or mobile phone. In April this year, American Well unveiled its latest products and services at the American Telemedicine Association trade show.
Some will point to the limited success of services such as Heal and Pagner, which are almost extensions of Uber’s taxi-network but in healthcare, as precedent demonstrating that we’re not quite ready as a society for AW8. These fears would however be unfounded, whilst the two companies mentioned above allowed users to summon doctors to their houses, American Well’s platform taps into the fact that we don’t often need to have 'live' conversations with our doctor.
The technology is there - 44% of Americans have a tablet and 64% own a smartphone. However, the ratio between virtual and real-life visits remains significant - over the course of 2014 there were 1 billion visits to doctor surgeries, whilst only 1 million people used telehealth.
The main reason for this was that the level of pay for telehealth doctors was considerably lower than that of a traditional GP, with some even reporting that they weren’t paid at all. The news that Medicare has begun to reimburse for some telehealth will mean that this is less likely to happen now, but ‘live’ appointments will continue to be a more difficult way of earning an income than being an in-house GP.
Despite this, telehealth remains an industry which is at the verge of making it big. It attracted $300 million in venture capital last year and American Well raised $81 million alone. If it does reach the mainstream, it will rely on the public to use it when it’s really necessary, not just when they’re just feeling a little under the weather. It is however a space which could help hospitals deal with the ageing population.