In the futuristic world depicted in the 1960s animated series "The Jetsons," George Jetson's son, Elroy, visits a physician virtually via a flat-screen videophone, arrives at school via drone, and plays ball with Rosie the robot, who doubles as the family maid.
Today, we see how the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the adoption of these types of technologies that once seemed so far-fetched. For example, the use of telehealth has risen dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drones disinfect streets in China, deliver medical supplies in Rwanda, and transport healthcare supplies to U.S. homes. Hotels and hospitals even employ germ-zapping robots to disinfect rooms.
COVID-19 has had a massive and devastating human and economic toll, resulting in the tragic loss of more than a million people worldwide and recently surpassing 200,000 in the U.S. It has stripped away millions of jobs and upended lives around the globe. Yet at the same time, it has fast-tracked a technological transformation that could have profound and positive impacts on healthcare. This transformation will make healthcare more convenient, accessible and affordable by moving more care out of medical facilities and into homes or specialized centers.
Telehealth revives the house call
The house call has returned, in a different iteration, as the pandemic has driven unprecedented adoption of telehealth. In April, nearly half of Medicare primary-care visits nationally occurred via telephone or video, compared with less than 1% before the pandemic began in February. The numbers have fallen since, but they remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic. While such visits primarily address less severe conditions such as ear infections, they are also used for specialty care consultations and to screen and monitor COVID-19 cases.
Physicians appreciate how telehealth enables them to reach more patients, while patients embrace it for the convenient, flexible and real-time care they receive from doctors. Telehealth is now so popular that many healthcare providers are calling to make permanent the temporary relaxation of federal regulations that facilitated the transition to virtual care during the pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, voluntary telehealth programs have often been as successful or even more successful than in-person care recovery programs. In helping recovered heart attack patients, for example, Kaiser Permanente's virtual cardiac rehabilitation program allows care teams to use an app coupled with a digital watch to monitor the progress of these patients with exercise, tasks, medications and heart metrics. Patients enrolled in this program were nearly twice as likely to complete the recommended course of rehabilitation than those in traditional face-to-face programs.
Back to the future with new technologies
Several new technologies also could accelerate a resurgence of providing acute care in the home, where most primary care and medical interventions took place until the 20th century.
Thanks to a variety of digital diagnostic tools, physicians can now remotely listen to the hearts and lungs of patients recovering at home from COVID-19. Such tools provide vital information to physicians while reducing risk for both patients and care teams and freeing up hospital capacity for COVID-19 patient surges.
Advances in anesthesia and minimally invasive and robotic surgery have minimized the risk of morbidity and mortality and shifted procedures and care into outpatient settings. While hospitals will continue caring for sicker patients, short-term acute care will shift to smaller, specialized centers closer to home. Centralized hubs with so-called "virtualist" clinicians could provide care 24/7 to digitally empowered patients. This acute-care ecosystem will be enabled by technology, agile federal and state regulations and a highly adaptable workforce. It could even help lower healthcare costs.
Within five years' time, artificial intelligence will capture pertinent information from patient-physician encounters and enter notes in a computer system, freeing physicians to spend more quality time with patients.
The Jetsons-like future is here. Now that we've caught up with the space-age healthcare envisioned in that series, we wonder: If Marty McFly—the "Back to the Future" movies' hero—took the time-traveling DeLorean to 2050, what kind of healthcare would he see?