From the halls of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland to the chambers of Congress in the Washington, D.C. to the humble offices of Warren Buffett in Omaha, Nebraska, there are few topics as hotly-debated as access to healthcare. Whether it is a small rural community in Garden City, Idaho or a major urban area in Tokyo, Japan, access to healthcare is one of the most critical issues to any community or nation’s survival and ability to thrive. Many times, the debate is about cost, which appears to be the main concern of both political/legislative issues as well as private-sector proposals, like the joint venture between Berkshire, J.P. Morgan, and Amazon. As the world moves closer and closer to city centers, the problems facing physical proximity to healthcare providers appears to be improving purely based on demographic and migration forces. According to the World Bank in 2017, about 55% of the world’s population was located in close proximity to an urban center; the 50% urban to 50% rural threshold first being crossed around 2009. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that urban populations will climb to 66% of the world’s population.
Still, much of the United State’s population lives in rural areas as do many people in countries across the world. This presents big problems for access to doctors and other medical healthcare facilities and professionals. There are huge discrepancies in both access and costs between urban and rural communities. The mortality rates in rural communities are higher for both infants and adults. Mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders are diagnosed at higher rates in rural communities. Children and veterans in rural communities have higher rates of suicide. According to a study in 2017, 54% of rural counties in America do not have access to a hospital with obstetricians and related services.
Many of these issues could likely be greatly improved with increased access to care, which urban areas have much greater access to doctors and other services than their urban peers. Because of distance, rural citizens have to travel a long way to urban care centers, losing time from work and ultimately spending more money when they already have a median income that is lower than their urban counterparts. So the access to healthcare for rural communities is a major problem, perhaps greater than that of their urban counterparts… but what is the solution? While politicians and governments debate how to improve healthcare, especially with those with little access, are telehealth providers a key to helping those suffering right now?
Many startups are attempting to address the issue of healthcare access through telehealth - where healthcare professionals meet with patients, write/send prescriptions, and other services by communicating with patients remotely, many times through video chat on the Internet. Surgeons, dentists, general practitioners, psychologists, therapists, ob/gyns, veterinarians, and a multitude of other medical professionals are all now using telehealth to lower costs and provide access to communities and citizens that don’t have quick/easy access to medical services. One such company is Avizia, recently acquired by American Well, a Virginia-based telehealth company “that provides virtual healthcare across a wide-range of specialities. This includes over 40 different service lines from runny-noses to strokes and neuroservices. We connect doctors to patients no matter where they are,” say Mike Baird, CEO and Founder of Avizia. Baird is quick to note that telehealth, while having tremendous impact on serving rural communities, can also have benefits for people living in urban environments. “Really telehealth is about efficiencies in the system. This is as impactful in Manhattan as it is in rural South Carolina because it can be just as hard to get a patient to a hospital in Manhattan than it is to do in South Carolina.” He notes that Avizia and other telehealth companies are seeking to address the triple aim of healthcare: lower cost, increased reach, and better services.
While telehealth providers like Avizia seek to address the needs that are facing healthcare systems around the globe - from cost to access - will governments and policy-makers make the sweeping changes needed to improve access for billions across the globe? Will the future of better healthcare for everyone be dependent on organizations like startups and providers, governments around the globe, or a combination of both parties, working hand-in-hand together to make the world healthier for everyone? Like other areas of life that have been positively disrupted by new technologies, are healthcare systems around the globe ready to be enhanced by telehealth? Is telehealth one of the keys to lowered costs, increased reach, and enhanced care for many that are suffering? Whether you are a Cardiologist in Charlotte helping a patient outside of Sacramento or a doctor providing a second pair of eyes to an surgery in El Salvador, telehealth could be the future needed by billions around the world.