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Will telemedicine solve the challenge of an ageing population?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Lightpoet / Shutterstock)

The UK population is ageing. By the middle of 2014, the average age had exceeded 40 for the first time. It is projected that by 2040, nearly one in seven people will be aged 75 and over. What effects will these trends have on the UK then? Well, very importantly, the Office for Budget Responsibility projects that total public spending, excluding interest payments, will increase from 33.6 per cent to 37.8 per cent of GDP between 2019/20 and 2064/65. That is equivalent to £79 billion in today’s terms and almost entirely due to an ageing population. An important sum for sure.

Such a demographic change is sure to affect the whole country and for the government, it will shape how public services are planned and influence every government department. When we stop to consider the impact on health services, without any significant improvements, an ageing UK population will increase the amount of ill-health and disability. Chronic conditions, multi-morbidities, and cognitive impairments will become much more common. In addition, many families will face increasing pressure to balance care (of older relatives) with other responsibilities. This is likely to mean that demand and supply of care will diverge, as the UK has more people needing physical and financial support, at a time when there are fewer people able to fund public services and provide care. Successfully meeting this demand will certainly need adaptations to health and care systems.

And globally, diseases remain one of the largest health problems within highly developed and rapidly developing countries. The most common of these are hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiac, neurodegenerative and geriatric diseases, in addition to COPD (or asthma). From year to year, the incidence increases. Combine this with an ageing population and a decreasing number of medical professionals, and we see an indisputable need for remote-health services. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools, connected to medical devices, provide an excellent solution to the problems of insufficient care staff and inefficient social services. There are many examples of telecare devices currently available such as, thermometers, ECG and Holters, stethoscopes, pulsometers, and spirometers or life bracelets for the elderly.

Diabetes is a condition that requires constant monitoring and administration of medication. To this end we now have Smart CGMs (Continuous Glucose Monitors) (CGM), a device that helps diabetics to monitor their blood glucose levels by taking readings at regular intervals and that are also able to send data to an app on a smartphone, for example. Smart technology is also helping the millions of people who are affected by asthma. Using a ‘connected inhaler’, asthma sufferers enjoy increased insight into their symptoms which gives them more control over their treatment. Sensors are easily attached to an inhaler or Bluetooth spirometer and connected to an app. Once again, those suffering get insight into what might be causing their symptoms and the sensor is even able to generate reports.

AI is saving thousands of hours

These examples of telemedicine illustrate a key benefit that technology of this type brings to bear upon health services in general. The ability for a patient to send key information to their doctor remotely, does away with the need for unnecessary appointments at the surgery or hospital. In turn, this will help ease the pressure at busy surgeries and hospitals and helps doctors by automating some processes and even, perhaps, providing more reliable and accurate information to boot.

Also, Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions within telemedicine are being developed in order to automate processes that would otherwise take thousands of hours to do manually. For example, seeking out potentially new therapies by trawling through massive medicine databases to potentially redesign existing cures to try and deal with the viruses of tomorrow. Let’s take respiratory diseases for example and the advances made through medical diagnostics devices that work alongside telemedicine. Doctors now have the opportunity to make judgements at an earlier stage, to track the course of treatment, the reactions to medicines taken and treatment adjustment after the traditional visit or hospitalisation. This improves patient satisfaction and offers peace of mind by being able to assess themselves and engage with a doctor who can make a decision quickly.

Similar technology is being developed so that doctors or health professionals can give advice via a chat-based interaction, again avoiding unnecessary trips to the surgery or hospital. It is very likely that telemedicine will continue to move healthcare delivery from the hospital or clinic into the home - telemedicine offers all kinds of possibilities, both for the elderly and those who are tasked to care for them. It can at least provide basic guidance, especially for populations in remote areas or where there are no healthcare facilities.

Telemedicine can provide a compelling alternative to conventional acute, chronic and preventive care, and can improve clinical outcomes. Shortages of medical staff and decreasing third-party reimbursement will also be significant drivers of technology-enabled healthcare. The growth and integration of ICT into health-care delivery holds great potential for patients and providers in the healthcare systems of the future.

Wojciech Radomski, CEO, StethoMe