HHH: Telehealth

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

Let’s talk about an emerging trend that promises to transform lives and become the next big thing. And libraries are poised to play a big part of it.

Today’s highlight: Telehealth

What is it?

When you cross telecommunications technology with healthcare, you get telehealth. And this combination reaps huge benefits. As a supplement to traditional medical care, people can receive healthcare quicker without having to travel to a physical location. This makes it more affordable and accessible, enabling many to receive higher quality medical attention to improve and save lives.

Stock photo of doctor consulting a patient via telehealth videoconferencing.

What is it good for?

  • Telehealth can address obstacles and burdens posed by geography, transportation, and other mobility issues.
  • By having more remote consultations, doctors are freed up to spend more time on patients who have more serious medical issues. Patients can avoid visiting the ER unnecessarily.
  • It reduces the risk of contagion. When flu outbreaks occur, for example, entire schools may not have to shut down to prevent the spread of the illness.
  • It also benefits the economy. The annual cost of the opioid crisis to the state of Texas is $20 billion (for treatment, rehab, criminal justice, foster care, social services, etc.), which is a huge percentage of the state’s GDP. Telehealth can help alleviate the costs considerably – so there’s economic incentive to leverage networks for telehealth purposes. Read more about how substance abuse recovery is supported by telehealth.

The idea of telehealth has been a longtime dream of forward thinkers. Back in the 1920s, people were envisioning what could be done using the newest magical technology of the time: radio.

1920s magazine issue of "Science and Invention", showing doctor remotely visiting patient who appears in a viewscreen
Science and Invention: “Diagnosis by Radio”
1920s magazine issue of "Radio News", showing patient remotely visiting doctor who appears in a viewscreen
Radio News: “The Radio Doctor – Maybe!”

In the far futures depicted in shows like the Jetsons or Star Trek, we predicted doctors would have the means to use wireless technology to scan their patients and help diagnose and treat them.

Screenshot of the Jetsons cartoon showing a doctor in a video screen examining Elroy's tongue; Screenshot of Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation examining her patient with wireless technology.

Today, telehealth is no longer the stuff of wish-fulfilling science fiction. With the rise and ubiquity of affordable mobile devices, two-way video-conferencing, sophisticated sensors, cloud-based services, and the high-speed Internet to power it all, we are seeing fantasy become reality. This futuristic tech is getting integrated into our everyday lives.

How do libraries fit in?

Libraries are the logical place to offer telehealth services (see Daily Yonder article, Jan. 2019 to read more). Libraries already direct patrons to authoritative health and wellness information (see my blog post to read more). What if they helped offer basic services as well?

Graphic of a lightbulb

Along with a WiFi hotspot, libraries could check out a telehealth device to patrons. This could be a digital otoscope to transmit vital signs to healthcare providers or wearables with sensors to help patrons monitor their health over time.

A photo of a digital otoscope and various health wearable devices.
Graphic of a lightbulb

Libraries could also act as a telehealth outpost. This could be a teleconferencing kiosk that patrons visit while at the library. At the Jackson County Public Library in Appalachia, Kentucky, a conference room has been converted into the nation’s first Virtual Living Room Telehealth Center to serve veterans.

Picture of a very low WiFi Symbol

There’s a problem with this new life-saving tech: telehealth runs on broadband. Internet speeds need to be very high for it to work. With many communities falling behind in connectivity while at the same time many populations, including seniors, realizing their need for telehealth, there seems to be a big disconnect. As soon as this technology hits mainstream popularity in the urban areas, rural communities are going to demand broadband even more than they already have so that they can gain access to these new services and the higher quality of life that goes with them.

Libraries are primed to be the go-to spot for telehealth as they are often the only place in communities to get free, fast Internet, and they touch everyone of all ages and economic levels.

Furthermore, telehealth requires patients to have a certain level of digital literacy. Brand new systems and interfaces are being developed to facilitate these services, and many will be left behind if they can’t figure out how to navigate them. Library staff are already poised and positioned as digital literacy experts to assist their communities in this new technology and to provide the foundational, basic skills training. Patrons can visit the library for help with everything from telehealth apps on their smartphones, to wearables, to “digital pills”.

A photo of a digital pill next to its app.
A “digital pill” with transmitting sensors comes with its own monitoring app

And the same technologies that allow sick patients to visit the virtual doctor can allow sick patients to attend school or work – via robot.

But that’s a Henry’s High-Tech Highlight for another time.

Photo of robot avatar in a school.
Baty, 15-years-old, goes to school via a robot avatar that has a camera controlled by computer due to having little or no immune system because of Polycystic Kidney Disease. CREDIT: Deanne Fitzmaurice (Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X85863 TK2 R1 F746 )

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