Real Time Communications Featured Article

Real Time Communications to Underpin Growing Telehealth Industry

February 06, 2015

While the idea of a doctor who makes house calls may seem quaint to us today, most of us still follow a somewhat old-fashioned model when it comes to healthcare: make an appointment with a doctor who lives in our town, drive to the office and wait in the waiting room. It’s not quite the same experience as it was 20 or 30 years ago: today, practices are huge and incorporated, paperwork is intense and care feels a lot more impersonal.




For some specialties, healthcare is no longer local. More people seeking elective procedures – cosmetic surgery or cosmetic dentistry, for example – are traveling for their healthcare, often to other nations where costs are lower (or subsidized by the government). Americans have been known to fly to Mexico or cross the border into Canada for medical procedures, and about a half a million Asians fly to places like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea for first-class medical treatment, often from neighboring countries with lower healthcare standards, like Indonesia and Malaysia. Experts call it “medical tourism,” and it’s on the rise.

Increasingly, however, technology is allowing healthcare to become extremely local again: even digital, through an Internet connection or on a wireless device. Real-time communications technologies, particularly those that handle video such as WebRTC, is allowing patients to meet physicians in virtual chat rooms, often at little to no cost.

In Asia, a number of healthcare Web sites exist to match up patients with registered doctors, sometimes across international borders, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. Web sites such as Klikdokter.com and TanyaDok.com (“Ask a Doc”) have thousands of affiliated physicians and millions of registered users.

In the U.S., the idea is becoming a reality, as well. Late last year, drug store chain Walgreens announced it was launching a virtual doctor visit feature on its mobile app. Walgreens, which is the U.S.’s largest drug store chain, formed a partnership with virtual health services provider MDLive to connect Walgreens customers with certified doctors via video chat on a smartphone, tablet or computer using real-time communications technologies. Appointments, which cost $49, are booked for non-emergency conditions, such as a cough, sore throat or rash. The company already allows customers to live chat with pharmacists via its mobile app.

“I think this will become a normal part of health care in three to five years," Dr. Harry Leider, Walgreen’s chief medical officer, told the Chicago Tribune. "We have got some real forces that are going to make this very compelling."

Analysts with market research firm IHS have estimated that the telehealth industry, which will be supported by real-time communications technology, may be worth $1.9 billion by 2018 compared to $240 million today, with an annual growth rate of 56 percent. The U.S. is expected to lead the world in telemedicine technology for many years to come.



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