When Covid-19 struck the United States earlier this year, telemedicine proved life-saving, facilitating safe and effective patient care from afar and helping physicians pool their resources at a time when the virus strained the healthcare system.
“I think it’s fair to say that telemedicine helped stop the collapse of the health system here in the U.S.,” says Steve Allen, director of health solutions for Intel’s Health and Life Sciences group. “Now, it’s becoming recognized as valuable technology with real benefits to all parties.”
Advancements in computing and AI made cutting-edge applications of telemedicine possible years ago. In large part, what stood in the way of full deployment until now was policy.
But after Covid-19 was declared a national health emergency in March, the federal government relaxed regulations out of necessity, enabling wider implementation and opening the floodgates of innovation. Medicare began compensating physicians for a broader range of telehealth services. Meanwhile, enforcement of certain HIPAA restrictions were effectively waived, allowing doctors to treat patients and prescribe medication through their screens.
Now, says Allen, “the genie is out of the bottle.”
Here, we explore how edge computing and AI put transformative capabilities in the hands of healthcare workers during the onset of Covid-19 and will continue to expand telemedicine’s use long after the pandemic ends.
By bringing AI to the edge, telemedicine has evolved patient care and experience through accessibility, which was invaluable for treating Covid-19 as well as curbing its spread.
Through remote patient monitoring, for example, physicians were able to use internet-connected, at-home devices to track the health of high-risk individuals, like the elderly and post-op patients, while minimizing their exposure.
“Imagine a coronary patient returns home, and they have to maintain certain lifestyle changes and medication in order to progress their health,” says Allen. Collecting data from weight scales and blood pressure gives a physician the insight they need to adjust care and monitor compliance, without calling the patient back into the hospital.
Remote care is just one facet of virtual medicine’s value proposition, though.
That’s a transformative shift, not only because it offers physicians new layers of insight into their patients but also because the more these technologies are used, the more innovation they unlock. “AI feeds on data, so as that data pool increases, we’re beginning to see new AI applications emerging from that,” he says.
For example, Intel is working with Medical Informatics Corporation (MIC) to help hospitals centralize and analyze data from devices that monitor patients’ vital signs, minimizing how often care teams need to round on patients and reducing “alarm fatigue” by triaging the patients they need to respond to.
“As soon as you digitize something, you get extra value,” says Allen. Over time, MIC’s live data feeds revealed patterns indicative of other aberrations, like the onset of sepsis. “In certain instances they’re getting hours of advanced warning that a patient may be heading to a sepsis event, giving them time to respond.”
AI-and edge-powered telemedicine has also made it possible for doctors and hospitals to collaborate with one another in new ways, pooling resources at critical times.
When Banner Health, a nonprofit system of hospitals in six states, saw a rush of Covid-19 patients, the organization worked with Intel and the telehealth platform VeeMed to bring advanced telemedicine software to over 1,000 in-room televisions across Banner’s 28 facilities, allowing its top specialists in infectious disease, pulmonology, critical care, cardiology and nephrology to see more patients and without risking transmission. Consulting with patients remotely also helped preserve personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gloves that were already in short supply.
“Seattle had already gone through the ringer,” Allen says. “They were the first hospital system in the United States to experience Covid-19. So when New York was getting overloaded with an influx of cases, and the team just couldn’t handle the workload in the intensive care unit, they sent patient data during the night to Seattle, so those patients could be monitored in Seattle.”
The Seattle team would then alert and advise the New York team when they needed to take action.
Allen only expects telehealth innovation to accelerate after the pandemic subsides, with regulatory accommodations likely becoming permanent and new use cases demonstrating success and sparking broad interest.
Telemedicine, he says, will impact every field of healthcare. In the not-too-distant future, for example, psychiatric care teams may use AI-embedded, high-definition video conferencing to analyze patients’ facial cues for a better understanding of their moment-to-moment emotional states.
Perhaps the most sweeping transformation to result from telemedicine’s rapid growth is what Allen calls distribution of care—the idea that healthcare will increasingly take place across a variety of locations between the hospital and the home.
“As you accept the fact that you need to have this network of medical and communication devices, it starts to suggest that not all of the care needs to be concentrated in a large hospital,” says Allen.
Care may reside in the home, the pharmacy and other points of access. “If you need an ultrasound, maybe you go into the local pharmacy, and they use a portable point-of-care ultrasound system with an AI image-recognition algorithm. If you need an X-ray, maybe you go into the local clinic, with AI to support the radiologist.” Self-serve telehealth kiosks in schools and offices can facilitate remote consultations and vital monitoring. “And if you need a CT scan or MRI, that’s where you go into the hospital.”
The result is a reimagining of the patient’s relationship with healthcare: “With advances in telehealth and AI, the care will be delivered as much as possible where a patient is, improving the experience for the patient and also for the team providing care for that patient.”