By Harsha Kikkeri, Director of Advanced Dev, Suitable Tech
Healthcare industry is usually slow to adopt new technology because there are so many stakeholders – patients, doctors, insurance companies, health care providers to name a few. But sometimes the new technology is such a game changer and the cost savings are so huge across the board that it gets adopted very rapidly. Telepresence devices happen to be one such new technology revolution which is very appealing to all sections of the healthcare industry. Doctors love it because it allows them to be in touch with the patient very quickly in case of emergencies. Patients like it because they can have the Doctor visit them at their home to see whether something is serious enough to warrant a clinic visit. Insurance companies embrace it because it significantly reduces administrative costs. Hospitals love it because they can get instant feedback from specialist doctors without having to fly them down. Healthcare find it attractive since they can monitor the patients in their home and reduce the time they need to spend in health care facilities.
What are telepresence devices?
A simplified way of looking at these devices is to consider them as skype on wheels. Just like you can use an app on your mobile phone or tablet or computer to make a skype call, you can use an app to make a telepresence call. The telepresence device can be setup to accept calls from some people automatically – say the patient visiting doctor’s office. Others (for example doctors visiting patients at their home) would need someone next to the device to accept the call – something as simple as shaking the device. Once the call is completed, your face appears on the telepresence device and voila, you are there!
You can control the movement of device using your keyboard arrow keys, mouse or even touch pad. Also many of these devices have wide angle field of views – the same range as human eyes and multiple microphones for picking up the tiniest of sounds and cancelling echoes. This provides a significantly richer experience than traditional video conferencing. Also video conferencing has no concept of personal space and personal communication. Only one person in the room can talk. However, with telepresence devices, it is just like having everyone locally. Each person gets his/her own device and can engage in one-on-one conversations. Moreover, the conversations can continue as the meeting ends and people start leaving the room. You can follow your colleagues to the water cooler or their office for a private chat!
How are doctors benefiting from using telepresence devices?
To understand the impact Telepresence is having on doctors more concretely, we can delve into a specific case. Dr. Ganesh Ram is the CEO/Medical Director at InMedia – a pain management clinic. He spends his weekdays working from one of two medical centers located 190km (120 mi) apart. Dr. Ram uses a telepresence device to visit patients and staff at both locations, at any time, and every day of the week. The figure below shows Dr. Ganesh visiting one of his patients and keeping track of the patient’s progress. He says this technology is particularly helpful when dealing with issues which require interdisciplinary effort, since it is much easier to get everyone together on telepresence devices than in person. Also since these devices are mobile, they can all just drive up to talk with the patient and drive away to the conference room to consult among themselves. It allows doctors to work from home on some days and save hours of driving. The telepresence devices are quietly adding more functionalities like better zoom, digital pointers, stethoscopes etc.
Figure: Dr. Norman consulting with his patient through beam pro telepresence device
Why are patients embracing these devices?
There are many factors which are leading patients to use these devices in their homes. Firstly, they don’t have to drive to the doctor’s or registered nurse’s office, the doctor can make a house visit. Secondly, with the network of doctors across a range of time zones, the likelihood of getting a doctors to visit at odd hours is much higher. Emergency care is prohibitively expensive and before incurring this expense, patients would like to know whether a symptom truly warrants such a visit. Thirdly, it is especially attractive for psychological care, since the subtle cues of seeing another person’s embodiment on a device makes it much easier to establish the mental connections. It is just not the same when talking to a doctor on a laptop. Lastly, in case of elderly patients, it is much easier for them to have the doctor beam into their houses using these devices since they don’t have to do anything. The doctor comes on the device, rolls up to their bed, talks to them and rolls back to the charging station.
What is driving adoption by healthcare providers?
Health care providers are looking very closely at costs with the recent changes to healthcare laws. They would like to provide the same level of service at a reduced cost. Telepresence devices allows them to significantly improve the utilization of their most important asset – their doctor’s time. Every minute the doctor saves in having to drive between two offices, or even driving from home to the office is time they can spend with the patients. Also healthcare providers in remote locations who don’t have the specialists in-house can use these devices to bring the doctors to their clinic for consultation– without having to pay for their travel expenses. Also there are many healthcare facilities in remote parts of developing worlds who are actively working with telepresence device companies to bring doctors to these remote/rugged villages. It is also very useful in cases of emergencies and disasters around the world to have doctors beaming in to attend the temporary surge of patients without the hassle of visas or concern for their security.
Bringing smiles on faces of kids who are hospitalized for long term
Social support is critical for kids who are undergoing long term therapies – for example chemotherapy for cancer. The recovery is much faster and less painful when they can connect back to their friends and family. Telepresence devices are increasingly being placed in these facilities by the friends and relatives of these kids so that they can maintain social contact with the world, while still confined to hospital or home. Since these devices don’t require any effort or movement on part of the patient, the friends and relatives can visit without straining the patients in any way. This is in stark contrast to other types of communication like the laptop video conference call, where the camera field of view, placement etc. require the patient to adjust themselves. Here the device has multiple wide angle lenses, has sufficient height and can adjust its position/orientation by moving around freely without any external help. It also allows the students to attend school remotely while undergoing treatment, thus ensuring that their academic year is not wasted.
Empowering persons with disabilities by providing them independence, access to education and job opportunities.
Another area where telepresence devices are ushering in a quiet revolution is in empowering persons with disabilities. The use of telepresence device is the same whether you are mobile or not. Kavita Krishnaswamy used such a device to defend her PhD thesis right from her bed, even though she is dealing with Spinal Muscular Atrophy which significantly limits her movements. Gal Sont from Isreal, who is suffering from ALS which has restricted his movements to just his eyes, has even developed a software to control such telepresence devices just using eye movements. Henry Evans, who has a congenital disorder which rendered him quadriplegic recently attended his niece’s wedding using such a device.
It is evident from the discussion above that telepresence devices are changing the way healthcare is being delivered drastically. Businesses which realize the impact of this change and adopt are flourishing, reducing their cost and increasing patient/doctor satisfaction. Telepresence devices are also getting smarter, for example, progressively providing more autonomy in terms of providing drive assist, map overlays and going all the way up to autonomous manipulation. The future looks very exciting with many more sections of the health care industry getting actively involved in leveraging the technological benefits of telepresence devices to make life better.