What if your next doctor's visit could happen by smartphone from anywhere in the world? It could happen sooner than you think.
It's called telemedicine, or telehealth: The use of Internet-connected devices to communicate information about diseases, symptoms and other health data. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is driving innovators in healthcare and technology to develop apps and devices that offer greater access to healthcare products and services at a lower cost. In fact, the global telehealth market is expected to grow from $440.6 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion by 2018, according to Colorado-based research firm IHS.
How could this affect you? Though apps that measure everything from your daily walk or run to your heart rate are already available, an incredible range of options are coming. Here are some of the current and future product development trends in smartphone and wearable healthcare:
Physical activity and vitals tracking. While many major health systems and hospitals allow you to download apps that let you schedule appointments, see lab results and even communicate by email or text with your doctor, such offerings have no diagnostic value… yet. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released policy statements on what it calls "mobile medical apps" that will actually allow tracking of vital health data for direct interpretation by trained health professionals.
GPS Medicine. Let's say you need to fill a prescription and you want to know the cheapest place to buy it within a 10-mile radius of your office. Using technology similar to the restaurant, movie and service-finding sites you probably use now, developers are considering similar models for medical supply and service pricing data that could save you money in real time.
Diagnosis by selfie. Who knew taking a selfie could help improve your health? This new technology allows patients to take a photo of a non-life-threatening injury or rash using their cell phones (http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-future-of-medicine-is-in-your-smartphone-1420828632). Then, an algorithm processes the image, evaluates it and texts back the diagnosis. Developers are coming up with sensors to collect symptom- and condition-related health data, which could mean that in the future, physicians will have a lot more to work with than a mere photo.
Virtual appointments. Healthcare legislation is also expected to spur use of handheld devices to create 24/7, real-time communication between patients and practitioners for the cost of a co-pay – or less. In a 2014 report, consulting firm Deloitte said that there would be 100 million health "eVisits" globally, potentially saving over $5 billion in costs compared to those incurred by traditional physician visits.
But before you start downloading this new technology, research the following:
- Who made the app and what do the developers really know about my condition?
- What about privacy? What's in the app's usage agreement and how safe is the payment, prescription or medical data required to use the app?
- What does my primary care doctor or my insurer think about me using this app? Could using it affect my coverage in any way?
- What does it really cost to use the app and how might it affect data charges on my smartphone or tablet bill?
Bottom line: The ability to manage your healthcare by smartphone is a revolutionary concept. But before you dive in head first, learn as much as you can about the technology and whether your current health professionals and networks support it.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.