The disruption caused by COVID-19 is boosting a shift toward telemedicine. A recent report revealed that the number of patients using telehealth increased in the United States from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. With social distancing having been the norm for the past year, people are now getting more comfortable with telemedicine.
Currently, telemedicine remains largely constrained to virtual patient visits by teleconferencing. However, clinically relevant technologies are proving to be quite useful and are helping to expand telemedicine beyond virtual patient visits. As a consequence, the telehealth market was expected to grow from an estimated USD 39 billion to USD 192 billion in 2020. In this article, we highlight some of the most promising recent examples of smart medical devices expected to improve and expand the delivery of telemedicine.
From wearables to smart medical devices:
The use of wearables for wellness and fitness purposes has skyrocketed in recent years, with products such as Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Garmin gaining in popularity. These wearables equipped with sensors and digital biomarkers that allow for digital transmission of data and collect data that can be extremely useful for diagnosing medical problems. To date, they have mostly been used by younger generations and fitness enthusiasts. As they gain further popularity, however, wearables can serve as a gateway for patients to use smart medical devices.
Smart medical devices and telemedicine:
Smart medical devices enhance current telemedicine practices by collecting patient data, relaying it to the patient’s physician, and integrating it into electronic health records. This allows for two major benefits: the physician can intervene rapidly when required, and unnecessary patient visits to the hospital can be decreased. Even some fitness wearables now measure important vitals like ECG. The Apple Watch has been recognized as diagnosing atrial fibrillation in people unaware of their heart condition. The French company Withings also makes a wrist watch with a clinical-grade ECG monitor that allows users to remotely send data to their doctors.
What are some examples of such clinical-grade smart devices that can be used to support remote delivery of care via telehealth?
Monitoring pulmonary disorders:
Current Health is a Scottish company that has developed an AI-based wearable device for measuring vital signs in patients suffering from COPD or heart failure. Until recently, this device was used in hospitals for patient monitoring. However, last year’s FDA clearance now allows for its use at home as well. This means that once the device identifies any warnings, a physician can be alerted for prompt intervention.
Image courtesy Current Health
Monitoring cardiac disorders:
For patients suffering from blood pressure problems, Omron introduced its VitalSight platform, which includes a preconfigured kit containing a blood pressure cuff along with a scale. These devices are connected to a modem-equipped data hub that lets users automatically send vitals to their doctor.
Currently, the most widely used way for diabetic patients to check their glucose levels is by means of a needle prick. Tokyo-based Quantum Operation Inc. showcased a prototype product at the CES 2021 that is a first of its kind. The company has developed a wrist-wearable glucose monitor that can detect glucose levels accurately in a noninvasive, needleless manner. This technology also allows healthcare providers to remotely keep a check on their patients.
Monitoring neurodegenerative disorders:
At CES 2021, iMediSync featured a portable helmet called the iSyncWave that can detect brain activity and even signs of early Alzheimer’s dementia using AI analytics and brain mapping technology. In addition to this, it can provide LED-based photobiomodulation therapy for neurological disorders including but not limited to Parkinson’s disease, depression, and PTSD. The iSyncWave works with a mobile application that serves as a telemedicine platform, allowing doctors to monitor patients remotely. This helmet is capable of providing an EEG; and unlike the traditional EEG machines that require adhesives and gels, iSyncWave can be used by simply placing it on the head. The company claims that the technology to discriminate between Alzheimer and non-Alzheimer types of cognitive impairment has shown over 90% accuracy in multicenter clinical trials.
Image courtesy iMediSync
What are the hurdles that are preventing widespread adoption of smart medical devices for telemedicine?
Patients and sometimes even doctors can be reluctant to adopt changes to the traditional delivery of care. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing more doctors and patients toward telehealth out of necessity, and its acceptance will inevitably grow with time.
Some medical devices used for telemedicine can be expensive and may not be covered by health insurance, preventing their adoption. Recognizing this issue, insurance providers around the world have started covering a wide range of smart medical devices.
Apart from this, some patients are rightly concerned about sharing their medical information over the internet due to the possibility of data security breaches. Therefore, medical device companies need to accept this and work on providing impeccable data safety as well as convincing their customers of the safety of their medical information.
With the advent of better sensors and AI, a revolution in smart medical devices is imminent. The products mentioned above are a testament to this, and we expect an increasing number of such products to come onto the market in the near future. The ability to monitor patients using these smart devices remotely will advance telemedicine to a great extent.
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