SkypeWith flu season upon us, healthcare providers and patients alike are gearing up for a busy time of year in the office. As office schedulers know, trying to accommodate all the patients a doctor needs to see in a given day is tricky enough without the added stress of flu season – when doctors are likely to need to see even more patients and hospitals will no doubt see an uptick in admissions and emergency room visits.


These challenges have developers and healthcare providers teaming up with patients to develop technology that could alleviate some of this stress. Using computers, smartphones, tablets and video conferencing programs like Skype, the race to create telehealth solutions is on. In healthcare, integrating telehealth faces some unique challenges regarding patient safety and security. In an era of notorious breaches, hacks and fraud, protecting patient information within telemedicine needs to begin at the outset, while the programs are still in development. Major consideration needs to be given to these features, in addition to usability and data management.


Challenges aside, virtual office visits are popping up in doctor’s offices nationwide. For nonurgent conditions, the use of video chatting programs like Skype can allow doctors and patients to connect without having to take the time necessary for an in-office appointment. Not only would the utilization of video appointments free up doctors, but their staff and office-based resources, too. There’s plenty of cost savings to be had if you’re cutting down on the number of patients you have to treat in the office – and for patients, not having to come in to the office when they’re feeling the sickest (and are most likely to be contagious) is not only good for their health, but for the population’s health too. That being said, of course there are times when video-based diagnosis wouldn’t be possible or advisable, which is why no office is likely to ever completely shift to telehealth, but in the case of a brief consult, video and internet based visits are no doubt the new frontier of patient care.


For practices that see a fair amount of younger patients, and for those that expect to be around long enough to treat the next generation of young adults, establishing an online presence for the practice isn’t just advisable, it’s necessary. More than any generation prior, millennials rely on their connectedness to expand their social and career horizons as well as their health. Apps that help users track progress toward health goals are booming, and management of chronic conditions like diabetes has already established a huge app market. If physicians tap into these data reservoirs, they will have real-time data on their patients right at their fingertips – especially in the younger population of patients who uses this technology proficiently.


Insurers, too, are aware of the telehealth trend and they are jumping at the chance to get their stake in the market. Many major insurers, like Cigna and Aetna, have already partnered with telehealth companies and are nurturing those relationships and developing technology alongside them. Beneficiaries of plans that have partnered with these companies will be among the first patients to have access to the new models of telehealth care.


But even for the uninsured, there are telehealth options that are available for a small fee and an internet connection. Online programs that assemble a group of credentialed doctors to chat with patients and provide a limited scope of answers to health questions are becoming more and more prominent, though it can be difficult for the average consumer to suss out which websites are legitimate and have vetted the doctor’s credentials. It is within this realm especially that HIPPA considerations are of the utmost importance. Online databases that store any patient information, even online question and answer sessions, must have strong encryption in order to comply with HIPAA regulations for patient privacy. Creating a safe environment such as this online is no small feat, and the future of telehealth and telemedicine will depend on the expertise of web developers and database managers who can create tightly sealed programs that are all but immune to outside interference. Of course, as the technology advances, so to do the skills of the hackers responsible for breaking into the systems. That’s why it’s vital that the developers stay ahead of the game and remain open to ever-evolving technology, especially in healthcare.


Those of us who work with patients on a regular basis know all too well that there often just isn’t enough time in the day to see everyone and meet their needs accordingly. Trying our hardest to accommodate everyone, most of us would welcome new technology that could allow us to be there for our patients in whatever way is best for them.