The Covid-19 pandemic changed healthcare. We saw clinic closures, overflowing emergency rooms, disruptions to routine care, doctor shortages, and the entire industry stretched thin. This, combined with social distancing and lockdowns, drove a sudden mass adoption of telehealth, while also highlighting weaknesses in the system.
It is safe to say that the widespread acceptance of telehealth has since been established and that it is now seen broadly as a viable option for care. However, there are gaps in what the most basic version of telehealth can provide when it comes to diagnostics, data security, and accessibility. According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, over 36% of adults have used a telemedicine service during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I recently spoke with Antonio Baldassare, CEO of UniDoc Health, which has created the H3 Cube, a standalone remote health clinic housed in a private kiosk that enables a lower-cost, real-time, remote doctor visit with a full suite of diagnostic tools and secure video conferencing technology housed inside. With this, patients are able to undergo full consultations as if they were present in a physician’s office. The company was inspired by their belief that healthcare is a right, and that everyone deserves access to quality care regardless of where they live or what their circumstances are.
Gary Drenik: What were some of the lessons that we learned from the rapid uptake of telehealth during the pandemic?
Antonio Baldassare: A few things became very clear, continuity and flexibility of care without sacrificing the quality of that care is paramount. During the pandemic, telehealth really became the only way for people to continuously engage with their physicians. This catalyzed people’s acceptance of the fact that yes, care can be delivered without a doctor physically in the room.
The gap emerges when it comes to the doctor’s ability to diagnose a patient remotely. It is not always possible for doctors to properly assess and diagnose conditions through phone calls or Zoom alone. This means that more often than not, many patients who sit for a remote consultation then need to follow-up in-person.
There are also accessibility issues, because not everyone has access to a high-quality mobile device or personal computer that they can use in a private, secure space with a stable internet connection. And there are others who have difficulty using computers altogether.
But we don’t need to remain stuck in this old idea of what telehealth is. The truth is that what is possible with technology has advanced more quickly than our medical system. There is no longer any need for the doctor to be in the same location as their diagnostic tools in order to get the patient data that they need.
Drenik: How is patient health data managed in each of these scenarios? Telehealth has drawn criticism for being less secure than a traditional doctor visit.
Baldassare: When a patient is present with a doctor in a clinic, it’s simple, the doctor can manually update the patient’s health record during or after the visit to the approved, compliant electronic health record (EHR) system.
For telehealth that takes place over the phone or a personal computer, the doctor still updates the EHR, but there is a potentially very serious issue with how the data is transmitted. Because patients typically use personal devices such as mobile phones or laptops, it is near impossible to ensure HIPAA compliance.
This is why we created a third option, with secure data transmission using technology that can connect directly with the EHR. Our H3 Cubes use compliant technology and a secure platform with fully integrated diagnostic tools, rather than the patient’s own devices.
Drenik: Beyond the technical, there is also the human side of all this. According to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics Survey, 45.2% of people prefer to visit their family doctor. Is it possible to maintain this continuity of care as telehealth becomes the norm?
Baldassare: The first question to ask iswhypatients prefer to visit their family doctor. I believe that the preference is anchored in the human connection and continuity of care that it provides. Your family doctor has access to your health history, and there is a sense of comfort in the familiarity and established relationship.
I believe that the integration of telehealth has the ability to actually enhance this. Another trend the pandemic drove is the growing popularity of the digital nomad lifestyle or simply living further from urban centers and working from home. So, telehealth could actually be what enables you to keep your family doctor when relocating.
Our H3 Cubes can be placed anywhere, including hospitals, care centers, pharmacies, grocery stores, universities, and remote communities. They also adhere to accessibility standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to accommodate patients with a range of disabilities.
Baldassare: I am encouraged by the idea that we are moving into a reality in which patients are empowered to be proactive about their health. Governments around the world are working to integrate technology-enabled care into legislation, and more recently, it has been proposed that telehealth can act as a tool to improve the efficiency of health services as it can enable the more efficient deployment and sharing of medical resources that are geographically dispersed.
We are currently working on bringing our H3 Cubes to a network of pharmacies in Canada, to low-income patients and veterans throughout Tucson, Arizona, and even to a growing list of African nations including Ghana and Nigeria.
We hope to be a part of building a future where everyone has access to quality care.
Drenik: Antonio, thanks so much for sharing your insights on telehealth and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on patients and care providers alike.