Telehealth and the Future

2020 witnessed amazing explosive growth in telehealth.  Although an infrastructure for telehealth developed in the prior five years by visionary entrepreneurs there was slow to non-existent adoption by providers, hospitals, and allied health providers.  Much of the reticence was due to poor reimbursement by health plans.  

During January 2020 to current times telehealth became an established and at times preferred method for outpatient visits.  This was due to an existing crisis fueled by a viral epidemic (pandemic) by a novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Social and physical distancing was mandated by public health officials globally.  This served to radically alter the health care setting. Physician office visits plummeted, even for the normal population. Elective surgical procedures were canceled and postponed. 

According to Fastly, to understand how the internet is performing with the changes in internet use brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we investigated two key metrics during February and March in some of the countries and states that were hit hardest by the virus: changes in the traffic volume served to those regions as a reflection of changes in internet use, and changes in download speed measured at our servers as a reflection of internet quality. In almost all regions, the largest increases in traffic volume occurred immediately after public policy announcements, such as school closures or stay-at-home orders. Similarly, the most dramatic decreases in download speed followed the official starts of those policies — presumably when populations made the shift to staying home.

Table 1 reveals the sharp uptick in internet traffic by country and state and the effect on broadband speed.  The findings reveal metropolitan areas suffered the least, most likely due to penetration and redundancy of the internet in cities.  Italy suffered the most increase in usage and the decrease in broadband speed. In the U.S.A. rural states such as Michigan saw a marked decrease in internet speed. Michigan is a rural state and the penetration and less redundancy in infrastructure caused network speeds to decrease by almost 40%.

Definition of High-speed internet

Perhaps the best modern measurement of whether an Internet connection is “high speed” is in what services are supported at that speed. Virtually any broadband, or non-dialup, connection can support a home user’s standard browsing habits. Streaming of standard-definition video, with a pixel width of 480, requires a minimum 1Mbps connection. Low-end high-definition video, with a pixel width of 720, requires at least 2.5Mbps. Streaming high-definition 1080p video needs at least a 9Mbps pipeline to avoid buffering delays. And these numbers only take into account a single device — if five users in your office network simultaneously stream separate 1080p videos, your 10Mbps will not seem “high speed.”   

If one lives in a rural area there may be severe limitations on live streaming used by telehealth.

The. Brookings Institute published a breakdown of what type of internet customers can access.  There are some surprising results

The lack of internet broadband access in the mid-south has created a need for cellular coverage.  While 4G/LTE is widely available there are some areas that only provide 3G. 4G/LTE may be adequate for video streaming when signal strength is strong. As 5G cell coverage becomes ubiquitous it becomes mainstream.   A recent test on T-mobile cell coverage in Southern California revealed a 60-75 MPs download and 40 MPs upload speed. That is adequate for live streaming as indicated by calls on Zoom and other video conferencing apps such as GoToMeeting, Google Meet, Webex, or Cisco.

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There are some indications that some payor and Medicare are planning to re-institute restrictions on telehealth reimbursement once the acute pandemic ends.  However, that is a big contingency since the ongoing pandemic is still evolving.