The future of medicine is almost here

And it’s partially thanks to your Netflix habit

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Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

On a train ride back from visiting my parents, I had a conversation with an interesting fellow.

Ron was a church-going man who spent his life helping the homeless and was traveling from upstate New York to Maryland to get a medical diagnosis. He was having what was known as “Leaky Gut syndrome” and needed to get surgery, but had a J-pouch (colonoscopy bag), which came with an increased risk of infection.

And he seemed kind of miserable on the train. A bumpy train is not the most comfortable ride, but imagine having to empty and clean medical equipment in a train bathroom, along with monitoring your vitals. Add that to winter weather delays, and he was most likely suffering.

But he had to go there: there were only two hospitals in the US that had the expertise to perform those operations with those complications. Except, in a few years, he might not.

There’s an amazing medical technology called telemedicine that would allow him to get that same sort of diagnosis done remotely at a local hospital without having to journey so far. And that future is almost here, thanks in part to your Netflix habit.

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Telemedicine, or “Virtual Healthcare”, is a method for medical professionals to communicate with patients or other professionals without physically seeing them in the office.

One of the clearest examples of this is in the episode “Frozen” from House MD: House is able to diagnose what is wrong with a person in the South Pole from his home as well as instruct a non-doctor as to what needs to be done.

That idea might seem like a fictional reality separate from ours, but telemedicine has been around since the 1940s. The first such instance was when radiology images (i.e. x-rays) were sent over a phone line.

Currently, telemedicine is used in 3 different use cases:

  1. Providing medical care to rural or hard to access places.
  2. Limited consultations between medical professionals with patient consent.
  3. Transmitting medical information from one medical provider to another (again, with patient consent)

As of right now, telemedicine exists in phone calls between medical providers, couriers (and packages) sent between hospitals, and medical information transmitted through a secure network (if you’re lucky). The House MD situation might occur if you were both within an organization (i.e. if doctor, patient, and other person were all part of the same hospital system), but for the most part, it’s unlikely.

As for why it’s complicated.

Just like many other issues with healthcare, telemedicine has a wicked problem. At its core, it wants to be an alternative method for seeing a patient and giving a diagnosis or second opinion.

But fundamentally, Healthcare is a late adopter of technology. I’ll write more about this later but the simplest explanation is that medical professionals are unwilling to take chances with the latest technology if it puts patients at risk.

As a result, the House MD example would likely only occur if both the South Pole worker, the non-doctor providing treatment, and the doctor were all part of the same medical organization: they all worked for the Mayo Clinic, for example.

Also, there are many legal, financial, and privacy issues with the transmission of sensitive medical data. This ranges from the legality of transmitting medical information across state lines, building secure databases and transfer protocols for sending medical data, as well as getting reimbursed by insurance companies for telemedical treatment and diagnosis. And that isn’t even considering whether both hospitals use the same vendor for telemedicine purposes (conversion between different medical equipment companies can be notoriously difficult).

So the idea of technology being used not only for consultations but for diagnoses is something that will require a large shift.

However, the shift may be coming sooner than you think. And it’s partially due to consumer demand for high-quality, streaming video like Netflix.

Two of the most impactful technologies for telemedicine purposes have been high-quality imaging and high-speed wireless internet. Up until now, the element that has been missing from telemedicine has been the ability for both the doctor and the telemedicine expert to look at the patient at the same time.

This is important because fundamentally, the two need to communicate about what they’re seeing. A judgment made by the doctor when examining the patient or based on other symptoms doesn’t necessarily translate to simple X-rays or written descriptions. And the telemedicine expert can’t make an accurate diagnosis based on what they guess the patient is like.

But the popularity of streaming video platforms, such as Netflix, combined with consumer demand for high-definition 4K TVs and electronics, has given medical technology companies access to technology capable of capturing patient data in high enough resolution to give a more accurate diagnosis.

Being able to capture medical imaging in high-definition may not be the most pleasant experience for the patient, but it’s an incredibly useful diagnostic tool for medical professionals. And for the first time, people can see the complete picture.

Being able to, with a patient’s consent, send a high-quality image to the other person, or even chat in real-time (pro-tip: if anyone can design a HIPAA-compliant messenger system like Skype, you’ll make a ton of money) is clearing one of the fundamental roadblocks to this technology use.

And big tech companies might clear a few more roadblocks.

The next big tech battleground may be healthcare.

Besides Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit, there are many small moves tech companies are making into healthcare. Amazon Care and the Apple equivalent. Healthcare monitors, such as blood pressure and heart rate, built into smartwatches and possibly Alexa.

Why is this important? Because these companies would have a vested interest in resolving a number of these existing problems. After all, Amazon doesn’t have state-based fees for shipping to different states (Except for Alaska and Hawaii, sadly).

Even more importantly, these companies are centralized platforms: if they can keep the data secure, then whatever patients agree to data-wise on the site can be accessed by different medical experts with few issues as to consistency and format. This also means that it would be a standardized platform for reimbursement across different medical systems.

This doesn’t tackle all of the problems that telemedicine faces (and I’ll be talking about that in the next post), but the way forward is visible at least. The future of medicine may be coming down the pipeline in the next few years, which might mean less bumpy and miserable train rides for Ron in the future.

If you’re working in telemedicine, shoot me a message. I’d love to chat about it.

I made an online course based on my experiences working as a UX designer in the field of healthcare. You can check it out here.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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