One key point that consistently comes up when discussing how to improve patient care is communication – better communication between providers, more communication with patients, even increased opportunities for communication with experts in other locations. Technology has helped these different forms of communication come a long way in a short time, with EHRs allowing for quicker and easier transfers of information, and telehealth becoming a more widely used tool to serve patients with limited access to care, such as the elderly and new mothers.
But with these technological advances comes another, more basic challenge: ensuring that local infrastructures can support the tools needed to make better care and communications a reality. Even in areas with access to decent internet speeds, video calls and large data transfers can create major bandwidth challenges. In rural areas, high-speed internet can be even less available, making it nearly impossible to have an effective video call with a physician far away or upload records from a new patient bringing years of medical history with them.
Fortunately, there are initiatives afoot to improve internet access for millions, if not billions, of users worldwide. In the United States, a Chicago-based health system plans to be the first healthcare organization in the country to use 5G internet connectivity. While not all devices support 5G just yet, some experts forecast that 5G service may be broadly available in the U.S. by 2020. And the American Medical Association is heavily advocating for expanded internet access in underserved areas of the country to allow doctors to better serve the populations of these locations.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to launch 60 Starlink satellites into orbit around the Earth in the very near future, which will offer high-speed internet access to billions of people. “The goal of the Starlink system is to provide high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity, ideally throughout the world,” Musk said. With other ventures also angling to compete in the broadband constellation market, several years from now there may be a number of cost-effective satellite internet options open to users all over the world.
And while new technology and tools give us the means to communicate easily all over the world, experts still stress that human interactions are the most vital part of providing effective healthcare. Computers may be able to replicate or improve upon human expertise in some areas, but empathy, collaboration, and storytelling are important elements of healthcare that can only come from human providers. As Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, said at a recent summit, “How we treat people means everything.” With improved internet access becoming a reality in places previously unheard of, doctors will be able to treat people the world over and improve healthcare for the global population.