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Laying the groundwork for the future of Telehealth

April 20 2022: The catastrophic Covid-19 second wave in India last year brought the country’s healthcare sector to its knees. Hospitals throughout the country ran out of beds, oxygen, and healthcare experts. Coupled with that, there was a countrywide lockdown, and the fear of contagion and apprehension, which kept people away from hospitals. As a result, many were unable to seek medical advice to ease their anxiety and worries. Prompted by the situation, both the consumers and providers started to explore safer ways to access and deliver healthcare solutions, thus, leading to the exponential adoption of telehealth.
As per a recent study, India's telehealth market stood at US$ 13.15 billion in FY2021, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 22.31%.
Other parts of the world also saw an increased demand for telehealth services. In the U.S., according to the CDC, about 43% of surveyed health centers were capable of providing telehealth services in April 2019. One year later, that number stood at 95%.
Telehealth is convenient and it holds the promise of expanding access to the underserved. But in its current nascent stage, there are technological opportunities that must be pursued to help foster broad-based adoption. 
 IEEE Senior Members sharing their expertise on what will it take for telehealth to become the “new normal,” and fulfill its promise of easy, expanded access to health services? 
Bringing Stakeholders Together 
“Telehealth services promise to extend their reach toward unserved and underserved communities, and increase the depth and diversity of healthcare services,” says Narendra Mangra, IEEE Senior Member. “This also creates a renewed interest and opportunity for diverse groups to revisit the challenge for healthcare inequity and the necessary underlying support for broadband capabilities.”
Those diverse groups include local governments that have rules about the size, shape and weight of equipment that can be attached to light poles. David Witkowski, IEEE Senior Member says that his working group helps technologists “understand what local governments expect. In turn, they help us by letting us know the state of the art and what form factors the equipment might ultimately take.” 
For healthcare providers, security is something that is top-of-mind. 
“Recent ransomware attacks and security breaches have placed trust at the forefront of several industries, including health care,” Mangra said. “It may be necessary to engage with policy-makers, as health care providers may not have the necessary resources and expertise to address security vulnerabilities and events.”
And then there is the challenge of bringing telehealth to the underserved. 
“There’s no magic technology that will make connecting the unconnected (or under-connected) possible — the solutions are based on economics and political will,” Witkowski said.
For remote, rural, and underserved areas, broadband access could bring usher in the availability of medical treatment. Groups like IEEE SA Rural Communications Industry Connections Program and IEEE’s Connecting the Unconnected initiative are working to establish frameworks for improved telecommunications access, including frugal 5G technologies, microgrids to provide consistent electrical access and macrocells to provide carpet coverage.
How Standards Improve Telehealth
From Bruce Hecht’s (IEEE Senior Member) perspective, consistent standards will allow telehealth to address the entire continuum of care, from birth to end-of-life, with access in rural and urban environments. 
“A coordinated telehealth approach promises to deliver better and more customized health care services, including preventative care, better quality of care, improved provider and patient interactions and cost savings,” Hecht said. “New innovations and health care models will also emerge as telehealth services and standards proliferate.”
How Better Networks Improve Adoption
Witkowski says that broadband quality and availability have an impact on the wide adoption of telehealth. 
He noted that users can’t pick up on non-verbal clues that play an often-underappreciated role in human communications, like body language or facial expressions. The constant need to ask for clarification and for speakers to repeat themselves is surprisingly taxing. The result is that users –– both practitioners and patients–– incur a higher “cognitive load” during video calls, resulting in “Zoom fatigue.” 

Often, this stems from poor broadband connections. The rollout of 5G networks is expected to have a big impact on improving them. 
“The key to successful medical care is a combination of medical knowledge and compassionate human interaction,” Witkowski said. “Cognitive load does not support the compassionate human interaction medical practitioners need to help us get and stay well. We can reduce cognitive load through better networks, and by making the interaction feel more instantaneous and natural.  5G has the potential to deliver this near real-time interaction.”
Prompted by the pandemic and encouraged by its success – telemedicine's expansion across the globe is expected to continue. It will play a critical part in ensuring that everyone has access to affordable and high-quality healthcare. Moreover, the mode itself will witness significant evolution as the new generation of technologies such as IoT and AI mature.