At the beginning of 2020, it was estimated that telehealth—the practice of consultations between patient and medical provider by remote electronic communication—was poised to grow nearly 15% worldwide by the year 2026. Those estimates also anticipated a $53.1 billion market by the end of that time. The study, published by Acumen Research and Consulting, was released just weeks before COVID-19 became a life-altering global pandemic, changing the telehealth growth forecast dramatically and introducing a number of important questions.
Recently, I participated in a Q&A session with CommScope’s editorial team about this very subject. Specifically, we discussed the future of telehealth, the technology needed to support various telehealth services, and how to improve network performance in our new world. Let’s take a closer look at these topics below.
What does the immediate future of telehealth look like in the wake of COVID-19?
Current projections now see the telehealth market expanding by a staggering 700% by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate of more than 38%. Virtual visits and remote patient monitoring are now the norm, and even as the pandemic recedes, there’s reason to believe that this trajectory will persist since it only reflects an acceleration of a previous-established trend—not only in healthcare, but also in the rise of remote work, education and other parts of daily life.
What is needed to drive telehealth services?
Apart from the now-universal image of a videoconference consultation between patient and doctor, telehealth also includes medical telemetry, the movement of patient data, and even telesurgery. One thing all of these applications have in common is the need for high-bandwidth, low-latency network connectivity, both inside the healthcare organization and outside as well. This is particularly true for video or voice consultations between patients and caregivers, as well as support for expanded triage facilities, which may be located outdoors. In addition, high-bandwidth, low-latency network connectivity is important to support electronic consultations with in-patients.
How are healthcare providers funding network improvements to better support telehealth?
For many, the pandemic only accelerated existing network infrastructure plans, while others had to start from scratch. IDC recently confirmed[i] that healthcare providers spent two years’ worth of planned network improvement expenditures in just two months. To help providers adapt quickly, the FCC introduced its $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program in the U.S. to support healthcare providers in their pursuit of more effective remote consultation technologies. Similarly, the EU awarded 55 million euros to projects promoting digital health and AI-based anti-COVID-19 efforts.
What network technologies are involved in expanding telehealth services?
The short answer is all of them. Building a future-ready wired and wireless network requires a converged infrastructure that simultaneously simplifies the architecture (by flattening more services on the IT network) and expands its applications (by providing a scalable platform that can evolve to support greater network density). Clearly, this involves a lot of interconnected and interdependent pieces.
Would we be able to discuss some specific examples?
Absolutely. Let’s first talk about Wi-Fi, as it is the front line of the user experience, for patients, staff, and visitors alike. Put simply, you need effective wireless coverage for healthcare facilities large and small. This is best achieved with APs that cover more users and space with fewer APs. APs and their switches should also be scalable and easy to configure, making it easy to expand Wi-Fi capabilities when needed. This model of scalability provides medical providers with the reliability and performance necessary for the delivery of top-quality healthcare services.
What about indoor cellular, including 5G?
Indoor cellular connectivity is critical for staff communications and other applications. However, the outdoor macro network often cannot penetrate modern buildings with consistency, making an indoor small cell or distributed antenna system (DAS) a necessary part of a healthcare provider’s network. To remedy this situation, I would recommend an all-digital DAS solution to provide comprehensive coverage over conventional IT cabling— including support for the 5G bands that deliver ultra-low latency needed by telehealth applications like medical telemetry and telesurgery.
So far, we’ve talked about Wi-Fi and indoor cellular. Are there any other critical components needed to support telehealth applications?
Yes, none of the above would be possible without structured cabling. This is because the foundation of all wired and wireless network applications is the copper and fiber-optic cabling that carries all network traffic. More specifically, power over Ethernet (PoE) and powered fiber cabling enable connection of IoT devices and applications across the facility, in addition to providing efficient connectivity for all telehealth services.
How do you see telehealth evolving in the months and years ahead?
All in all, the revolution in telehealth technologies is unlikely to recede—or slow down—even as the pandemic recedes. Healthcare providers should continue prioritizing telehealth services and the network infrastructure that drives them, because they will always be the critical link in the delivery of healthcare services.
[i] IDC Directions 2021 Conference