Why you should keep a close eye on telehealth
5 minute read
Want to know a stunning fact?
According to a new Pew Research study, 81% of Americans now own a smartphone.
That comes out to more than 260 million Americans, most of whom probably depend on that device to communicate, pay bills, connect to social media, check the weather, shop for things, listen to music, take pictures, access the internet, watch shows, follow the news, and the list goes on.
Our phones clearly play a huge role in our lives, so much so that they've almost become extensions of our own bodies, rarely leaving our pockets or hands.
Don't worry, this isn't leading to an existential question.
The point here is that the smartphone has ushered in a new era, not just because of the device itself, but due to the services on the phone. Most of the valuable services in our lives are accessed through that minicomputer.
But have you ever noticed that health care services on smartphones are seemingly absent? Why hasn't health care reached our pockets yet? If 81% of Americans use smartphones to access their most important service providers, why aren't health care services included?
This is a difficult question to answer for many reasons, in large part due to the imagination requirements when considering the near future. It's easy to get carried away in a potential future that might not be anchored by current reality. So let's stay in reality for a moment and look toward the largest tech companies today, despite their dissociation from health care services, and analyze how and why they rose to prominence.
For most of these huge organizations, their visions were rooted in a simple realization that they could reach potential customers through a handheld device that never left the user's side. Their thinking was simple: If we can reach more people, we can spread more value.
Facebook, Spotify, Instagram, and Uber all realized early on that the smartphone enabled an entirely new opportunity, but also posed a unique challenge. They had to reinvent an existing service so that it could more efficiently connect with us, the consumers. Think about this for a second. Facebook didn't invent social networking, they just reinvented it. Spotify didn't create music collection or curation, they just reinvented it. Instagram didn't develop high-quality photography production, they just reinvented it. And Uber definitely didn't start the taxi service, they just reinvented it.
All of these companies were able to see the forest beyond the trees because their minds were open and opportunistic. They saw opportunities to reach out to their customers instead of customers reaching out to them, and they capitalized on them.
Can you see where this is headed?
You should keep a close eye on telehealth because there is an interesting opportunity looming to reinvent how physical therapist services can be delivered and accessed.
From a conceptual perspective, telehealth could add another avenue that makes our services more accessible and valuable. And with continued cuts to physical therapist services in the near future, access will be become increasingly important.
There are some interesting pieces of data that might foreshadow the potential impact of digital health care services. The increasing presence of digital natives, the influx of outside interest in digital therapeutics, and creation of the Frontiers in Rehabilitation, Science, and Technology (FiRST) council established by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) all lend to the potential rise of telehealth.
Digital natives consist of more than 150 million Americans.
Around half of all Americans are now considered digital natives, who consist of Millennial (~74 million) and Generation Z (~80 million) populations. A digital native is defined as someone who was born during the digital era or someone who grew up with technology, and who doesn't find the complexity of technology to be problematic. It wouldn't be a far out guess to assume that digital natives will, at some point, expect a certain aspect of their health care experience to be digital.
One survey found that 74% of Millennials expressed interest in digital health care services, and another large report identified that, "Millennials are adapting how they access health care and are open to different health care options." I view this ancillary data not as validation, but as an interesting trend that is most likely going to continue.
The influx of outside interest in digital therapeutics is skyrocketing.
Within the past several years, there has been a remarkable influx of outsiders or non-physical therapists entering the growing digital physical therapy space.
Have you ever heard of Reflexion Health, Hinge Health, Sword Health, Physera (disclaimer: I'm an employee), XR Health, Kaia Health, or Joint Academy?
These are all start-ups that have dedicated missions to address the musculoskeletal and pain relief needs within our society. With the information available online, it's estimated that these companies have collectively secured well over $100 million in the past few years alone, which is a clear indication that the digital physical therapy landscape is highly valued and growing fast. The question now is will more physical therapists jump into digital health? The jury is still out on that one.
APTA is strongly supporting the growing interest in telehealth.
Created in 2016, FiRST council is an entire suborganization to advance technological innovations into professional practice, education, and research. Telehealth is one of its five focus areas, and APTA is beginning to roll out more valuable information about why telehealth is rising in importance, guidelines for navigating telehealth ethics and regulation, and additional resources including research and media surrounding the topic. The takeaway from APTA's efforts is clear: Telehealth is here to stay, and PT's should have the resources available to learn more.
So what's your biggest takeaway?
My objective is not to convince you to try telehealth, because it is certainly a different type of practice that requires more experience and research to validate its efficacy. However, my hope is to convince you that telehealth is worth looking into because it is a tool that is here to stay. Just like hammers changed how our ancestors built shelters and communities, modern technologies, such as smartphones, have changed how we interact with the world.
Telehealth is a tool that might offer a unique path to provide care that is congruent with our increasingly technological society.
We are living in the digital age, and some aspects of our practice, education, and research should reflect this. If you're interested in learning more, check out APTA's growing telehealth resources or look into the current evidence supporting its potential efficacy.
Ben Gordon, SPT, is a second-year physical therapy student at the MGH Institute of Health Professions and is a core member of the Telehealth council (APTA FiRST council). Connect with him on twitter @BgordonSpt or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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