This is the first in a series exploring the telehealth sector and the Triangle-based companies behind its rise as a complement to traditional healthcare delivery. 

Before my son reached his second birthday, we visited his pediatrician’s office at least 40 times. Some of those visits were scheduled, monthly or bi-monthly check-ups. But most were unscheduled—ear infections, common colds, and more ear infections left me scrambling to get to the doctor’s walk-in hours at least once a month.

The inconvenience of visiting the pediatrician is always worth it—if it turns out my son actually is sick. When he’s not? Well, it’s still worth it, but only because it offers some peace of mind and relieves any guilt I’d feel if it were a real illness.

But what if instead of trekking to the doctor office for all those unplanned visits his doctor could examine him virtually via a skype-like conference call? Or I could attach a device to my phone, take video of my son’s inner ear, send to an on-call doctor, and receive a diagnosis at any hour? Or send data captured from a wearable device to his doctor?

I would have saved hours of time, money, and stress. The doctors would have benefitted from the time-savings, too. All without any compromise of the quality of care my son would have received in-person.

This capability—delivering healthcare services virtually via various online communication technologies and applications—is what many call telehealth. And all of those applications, videoing with my doctor, using devices at home to check my son’s ears, or managing and measuring personal health outside the doctor office via wearable devices—are all available today.

For years, I’ve heard colleagues and peers say, “telehealth is coming!” or even, “telehealth is here!” But I never believed them because my experiences with the healthcare system told me otherwise.

But after WRAL Techwire’s “Mobile Health Leaders” event in Raleigh last month, I left with a sense that my peers had been right all along. That the normalization and utilization of telehealth services as a supplement to in-person healthcare wasn’t just coming, it was already here. It had slowly been trickling its way into the fabric of our healthcare system and I—and many others—hadn’t even noticed.

This realization led to a slew of questions, and ultimately this series. I wanted to know if my feeling—that telehealth is on the brink of widespread expansion and adoption—was correct. And if so, why and why now? Is the Triangle uniquely positioned to be a leader in this field? What should be done to increase telehealth services and the adoption of them and simultaneously ensure care remains high-quality? Who are the players in this field and what startups working in this space should we watch? And what does this shift in healthcare delivery mean for the future of the healthcare system and for patients’ health?

Why Now?

The word medicine derives from the Latin word, medicina which means “the art of healing.” Medicine and subsequently healthcare has always been focused on healing and improving health. It just so happens that the collision of a few factors have now made it possible to take care of people in a different way.

What are those factors? There’s likely quite a few, but throughout my research and time spent with many local experts two specific factors floated to the top of the list:

  1. Prevalence of technology— Web-based, software, and consumer technologies specifically technologies like web portals, videos, apps, wearables, tablets, and mobile device have more functionality and are more plentiful than they’ve ever been. The infrastructure digital technology rides on, broadband, is also more readily available and has more capacity than ever before. Many people still lack access to broadband, and many people do not use their mobile device or use web-based technologies often, but the overall use and understanding of web-based technologies is higher than ever before. It’s still not universal and many people still can’t afford it, but access has increased and the use of the technology is higher than at any other point in history.
  1. Disruption in the healthcare market— The healthcare market itself is in the process of big changes. Many of those changes are due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), both the parts of the law frequently discussed (the exchanges, subsidies and Medicaid expansion) and others that rarely make headlines–primarily the shift in reimbursement models.

The primary driver is the reimbursement model shift from a “fee-for-service” model (exactly what it sounds like) to a “value-based care” model. In this new model, doctors are paid based on the quality of care delivered, not the quantity. Thus the incentives have changed and doctors are looking to new ways to deliver care and ensure holistic health for their patients. This requires a better understanding of the patients lives outside the four walls of the doctor’s practice or hospital. It also requires the advent of innovative solutions like RelyMD’s live video platform for non-emergent care.

For all of the experts I interviewed, the impetus for working in this field was the same, to improve the healthcare sector and subsequently patients’ and their family’s lives. David Jones, general partner at Bull City Venture Partners says, “For half of the companies we meet (in this field) there’s some personal reasons behind their work. That goes a long way, this is more than salary and equity, this is their reason for being. In healthcare you see this so much more, you’re not just improving some process by 10 percent, you’re actually improving healthcare outcomes and patients’ lives.”

Curious to learn more about this new “art of healing” and learning more answers to the rest of my questions? Stay tuned for the rest of the series and you can learn along with me.  

Credit: Amy Huffman