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The Future of Telemedicine

Telemedicine — connecting virtually to medical professionals in place of in-person appointments — took a step forward as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Judy Ma, Design Director, 3M Health Care Business Group, discusses the evolution of telemedicine and the opportunities and challenges it presents going forward.   

What is the significance of telemedicine today, in this age of the pandemic? 

Across diverse industries, the pandemic has changed how we approach traditional systems. With innovations in science and technology, however, the world is thinking differently about the way people connect and interact.  

In the world of health care, an industry designed around interaction, innovation in telemedicine is fundamentally changing how traditional care is viewed. The pandemic has accelerated the need for various solutions as well as access and the expansion of care. 

What are some of the main benefits of telemedicine?  

Telemedicine has been indispensable during pandemic lockdowns. It has made access to providers simpler and more convenient in times of stress on traditional health care systems.  

As a whole, advancements in telemedicine has modernized the provider visit itself, offering a host of benefits on both sides of care. It is ushering in a new form of doctor visits. But most notably, benefits include: 

  • Reduced risk of contagion or other ailments for a patient or provider 
  • Increased flexibility for patients and doctors  
  • Improved access to health care providers in rural or remote areas 
  • Reduced unnecessary ER visits 
  • Improved patient outcomes: Remote monitoring tools to measure blood pressure or heart rate can ensure that the providers collect patient health data regularly, improving recommendations for future care 
  • Improved recommendations for future care by using remote monitoring tools to measure blood pressure or heart rate, so that providers can collect patient health data regularly 
  • Cost savings and increased efficiency 

What are some of the challenges of telemedicine? 

There are still some points of care that rely on person-to-person interaction. For example, today, it's impossible to conduct a full physical exam entirely virtually. However, telemedicine can streamline aspects of care through its convenience or even evolve to offer more personal health tracking to support an in-person physical exam. 

It is important to recognize that this paradigm shift also requires new systems and considerations to be put in place. 

As an evolution of care, many health care providers are lagging in their digital health readiness. Many providers admit they are not ready to deliver the level of secure digital and mobile health offerings to meet today's consumer expectations.  

With the growth of the industry, hundreds of medical apps, products and services have appeared on the market in the last couple of years, but clinical significance can be questioned in many cases. Problems vary from not being able to effectively measure and validate medical data to dealing with clinically less meaningful data or information that is not relevant in care settings. 

How can technology move forward to make telemedicine even more effective and accessible? 

We think about this a lot. At 3M, we create a human approach to health care technology. We provide high-quality accountability that is consistently defined, understandable, relevant and formatted for practical use in decision-making for providers.  

My team works tirelessly to bridge the gaps between patients, caregivers, health care professionals, and health care providers and meet the requirements of a connected but diverse set of stakeholders in a highly regulated, risk-averse industry. With experience, these hurdles can be more easily overcome as we design more seamless solutions within telemedicine.  

What future technologies are being explored? What would be gamechangers for telemedicine? 

The future of health will likely be driven by digital transformation enabled by radically interoperable data and open, secure platforms. Health is likely to revolve around sustaining well-being rather than responding to illness.  

At 3M, we are exploring how technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) could help identify illness early, enable proactive intervention and improve the understanding of disease progression. Technology might also help break down barriers such as cost and geography that can limit access to health care providers and specialists.  

Health systems, health plans and life sciences companies have begun to shift some of their focus to wellness, but the overall system remains focused on sick care. It is anticipated that successful companies will identify and compete in one or more new business archetypes. Health care sectors will look very different in 2040, for example. 

Is 3M involved in the advancement of telemedicine, and if so, how? 

Yes. We have several digital health products (e.g., MyWoundHealing™ & iOn HEALING™) in the marketplace that provide always-on, real-time wound therapy guidance and a wound healing progress tracker, plus virtual consultations and direct access to products and services for clinicians treating complex, hard-to-heal wounds in the post-acute setting.  

Another example is the 3M Oral Care Portal which enables orthodontists to connect with patients remotely and superimpose various 3M orthodontic appliances on a live image of the patient. The app acts as a virtual typodont using face-tracking technology and is designed to help clinicians present treatment options and discuss the lifestyle implications of specific treatment choices. 

Are any existing 3M technologies helping in the area of telemedicine? 

Accurately predicting wound healing trajectories is difficult for wound care clinicians due to the complex and dynamic process involved in wound healing. Medial Solutions Division/KCI has developed and launched a wound algorithm solution leveraging AR (Augmented Reality) that utilizes the smartphone camera to take clinically accurate measurements of the wound, generating big datasets over time. These allow clinicians to better track and compare wound progress, choose the proper dressing, and predict healing outcomes. 

Any other thoughts to share around telemedicine? 

Patients’ needs are changing, and many want to have more control over their health care. I believe telemedicine will continue to grow as society becomes even more digitally connected. The devices, data and market demand are in place to support a significant shift in human health through connected health technologies. I believe “Connected Health” is where the future of health resides.