Virtual Care is the Future of Medicine

In January 2020, a bank manager told Stephen Klasko, president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, a network of 14 hospitals in Philadelphia, that for 20 years health and banking had been the only industries still resisting the digital consumer revolution. “Now you are alone,” the banker added, according to Klasko’s remarks to The Economist magazine.

He’s right. McKinsey Global Institute points out that health has come later to digitalization than not only banking, but also tourism, commerce, the automotive industry and the food sector, something that became clear with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

Telemedicine is the part of e-health that manages the systems and telecommunications of the entire medical process, from prevention, through management, diagnosis, treatment, and health education. The system improves the access and reach of this basic and essential service.

Telemedicine is especially important for primary care, as it efficiently sends patients to health centers, helping decrease influx to hospitals, decongesting outpatient clinics, avoiding readmissions, and increasing treatment follow through, according to experts. All this generates significant savings for providers and users.

Remote medicine is also critical to expanding health to rural and remote areas, especially in large countries where medical care is in central cities, as is often the case in Latin America.

Telemedicine in Latin America

Telemedicine uptake has been quite slow in Latin America for reasons such as the lack of infrastructure, lower technology adoption, and regulation. According to a study by Global Health Intelligence, a leading health data analytics company for Latin America, and Florida National University, before the pandemic Chile was the leader in the region, with 68% of its hospitals offering telemedicine, followed by Uruguay with 54%, Guatemala with 45%, Mexico with 29%, Argentina with 26%, and Colombia with 25%.

However, with the arrival of the pandemic adoption of telemedicine in the region sped up, both at the public and private sectors, and the use of applications that combine free and paid services has skyrocketed.

According to Yahoo Finance, the Brazilian platform Docway went from having between 3,000 and 5,000 consultations per year to one million in 2020, while Colombian app 1DOC3, open to any country in the region, grew 925% only in Mexico. These apps take visit payments by transfer or through payment gateways.

Some of these applications have pivoted from a consumer-only focus to collaborating with consumers, corporations, and health insurers, who see it as an attractive business model.

Technology makes telemedicine a reality

According to a study by consulting firm Accenture, 81% of healthcare executives worldwide sped up their organizations’ digital transformation because of the pandemic, while 93% are innovating urgently. Their favorite technologies are the cloud (39%), Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity (all three 36%).

The cloud is essential, since it helps store massive data and information for millions of patients, offering anywhere, anytime access to it, and making virtual consultations easier.

IoT is used to monitor chronic or elderly patients, especially those with electronic implants, such as pacemakers. 

More of us now use wearables, mobile devices such as watches, rings, and cell phones capable of measuring glucose levels, blood pressure, and other biomarkers that doctors can monitor remotely.

AI is very important in workforce management. For example, AI can help manage shifts and schedules while providing for the staff’s wellbeing. Likewise, waiting times for patients are shortened and cancellations without the possibility of rescheduling are avoided through automatic notifications.

Thanks to AI, it is also possible to optimize the quality of video and audio in teleconsultations even when connections are poor, as is often the case in Latin America. AI can also assist in analyzing diagnostic images, and in adding up all the information from the numerous institutions, public and private, which have been accumulating data, systems, and resources in silos. The goal is to create electronic health records (EHR).

CPaaS and Data Interoperability

All communication capabilities, such as voice, video, and messaging, can be easily and quickly integrated into companies’ pre-existing applications through a cloud-based communication platform as a service, or CPaaS, which each institution can adapt to their specific needs, paying only for the services they use.

Avaya, a Verb Company client, is a leading provider of these new platforms. Together with the interoperability of health data–that is, the exchange of standardized data between all industry actors, whether public or private–CPaaS can offer professionals and patients all the clinical information they need, wherever and whenever they want, in a secure way.

“Interoperability allows professionals to have a complete patient history to make care, prevention, diagnosis and treatment plans easier (…) and, finally, it helps managers make appropriate decisions based on primary citizen information,” says Ángel Horta Reina, director of business development in health at Minsait, a digital transformation and information technology consultancy in Spain and Latin America that is part of Indra, a Spanish global consulting and technology company.

Latin America has a great interoperability challenge. According to a white paper by Minsait, Latin America health interoperability reference countries are Uruguay (34%), Argentina (21%), Chile (19%) and Colombia (11%).

Low internet access in the region played a key role, though it has grown lately. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in 2020 71% of households in the region were connected to the internet, a significant increase compared to 43.4% in 2016.

“Today we can create the technological infrastructure for the new health providers, and that infrastructure is an interoperable data platform used under the premise of ensuring the privacy and security of the most sensitive information,” says Luciano Tourn, co-founder and CEO of Wúru, an Argentine startup that uses AI and data analytics to improve healthcare practices.