The Doctor Will See You Now

This century began in the midst of an information revolution powered by widespread internet access. That, in turn, led to a self-service revolution. People use mobile apps to book travel, make bank deposits, find the best restaurants, and even buy homes. Freed from the inconvenience of going through gatekeepers, 3.5 billion smartphone users worldwide have become accustomed to using their devices to make things happen for themselves — except access medical care.

Until recently, healthcare remained largely untouched by the self-service revolution, but that's changing quickly thanks to advances in video, augmented reality, and AI medical services technology.

How are these solutions bridging the gap between patient expectations and the complex reality of medical diagnosis?

Self-Service and Medicine Don't Mix … Yet

The trend toward self-service healthcare has been slow and limited in scope. And for good reason. It takes 10 years of training to become a general practitioner. While you don't need to be a banker to understand your bank statement,online symptom checkers only give you an accurate medical diagnosis 36% of the time, and you only get appropriate triage advice half the time.

The answer isn't as simple as encouraging people to stop their attempts to self-diagnose. That genie is out of the bottle, with 44% of American adults using the internet to self-diagnose rather than visiting a healthcare provider. Not only is it more convenient, but in an era of steadily rising healthcare costs, it's also less expensive.

If providers are to meet patient expectations and extract more value from each dollar spent, they need to deliver self-service healthcare that patients can access on their own schedules without breaking the bank. But in healthcare, self-service currently means on demand, not on your own.

Telehealth and AI Medical Services Empower Self-Service in Healthcare

To understand where and how to introduce more self-service safely, you first need to understand the existing role of self-service in healthcare. Broadly, there are five types:

  1. Telehealth: Virtual appointments with medical professionals.
  2. Patient web portals: Online tools that let patients access their medical records, book appointments, and message their care providers.
  3. Digital preventive healthcare: On-demand resources that help people avoid a medical condition by delivering healthy living advice.
  4. Technology-supported condition management: Helping patients understand and better manage their conditions, through fitness and wellness tools and remote patient monitoring.
  5. Group therapy and support: Helping people with similar conditions interact with and support each other.

Both logistically and therapeutically, each type of on-demand healthcare is complex and highly regulated. For example, chatbots that provide diagnosis are considered to be medical devices, with all the rigor that entails. As you'd expect, this is something that academic medicine has been exploring for some time, and there are established frameworks to determine the suitability and maturity of tools, for example, that assist in reaching a diagnosis.

So, with the constraints of money, availability, and geography, access to medical professionals is both scarce and expensive. If part of the problem is that professionals are in greater demand than their availability can supply, how can communication technology and AI medical services help overcome those constraints and deliver safe, reliable self-service medicine?

3 Phases of Self-Service Digital Healthcare in the Next Decade

At Vonage, we leave medicine to the professionals. However, from our experience with communication technology, we believe that telehealth will undergo a three-phase transformation over the next 10 years:

  1. Remote access to existing services: Telehealth technology that connects patients and providers, such as telemedicine, live video, and remote patient monitoring solutions.
  2. Human-plus: Human-led services augmented by AI medical services capabilities that make human practitioners and participants more effective.
  3. AI-led: AI medical services that are the primary point of healthcare for patients, with human practitioners available for cases not suited to the AI.

Let's be clear: Phase three is a long way off. Technical, regulatory, and cultural hurdles likely mean we won't see healthcare led by AI for 20 years or more. But the pandemic has accelerated phase one by a decade, and we're already beginning to see the seeds of phase two — for instance, in machine-guided surgery and AI-based remote patient monitoring analytics.

Even in phase three, people won't be any less important in the delivery of healthcare. Instead, just as we've seen with past technical innovations, new forms of digital healthcare will free human practitioners to innovate in new areas and spend more time connecting with the patients who need them most.

So, what can we expect to see in each of these three phases?

Remote Access to Existing Services

This is the self-service healthcare that we have today. It's the mobile app that gives you a HIPAA-compliant video call with a medical professional, perhaps running on the Vonage Video API. It's the access to diagnostic information that, frankly, most of us are ill-equipped to use. It's the forum where people living with the same condition can support each other.

This is exciting. It delivers timely healthcare to remote areas and can improve outcomes. Remote access to existing services makes them cheaper to deliver, saves time, and connects people who might never have met.

But it's just the start.

The next part of this phase is to integrate existing healthcare services more deeply into our everyday lives and preferred communication tools. What if patients could contact providers using secure messaging on WhatsApp? What if chatbots could respond to basic questions and concerns, thereby lowering the cost of healthcare? That is human-plus.

Human-Plus

Augmenting human contact center agents is already a theme in customer communication — a way to combine human and artificial intelligence to anticipate and meet customer needs. In healthcare, human-plus means using AI medical services technology and AR techniques to make human medical professionals more effective and meet patient expectations for self-service care.

Imagine that healthcare providers can give their patients an app that puts high-quality first-line healthcare right on their smartphones. People already try to self-diagnose, so an AI-driven healthcare app could meet that desire for a quick and convenient diagnosis in a safer way because it will bridge the gap between the average person's knowledge and that of a doctor. And unlike symptom checkers, the app would keep the patient's physician in the loop.

Such apps will eventually triage cases and escalate them to humans where the AI is out of its depth. Similarly, AI assistants will listen in on patient-doctor consultations, document care, and provide real-time, evidence-based advice to clinicians to help them deliver more effective care.

In the human-plus world, people remain as the final decision-makers for all except the simplest of cases. Video calling, voice calling, SMS, over-the-top messaging, and so on provide channels that enable AI agents to enhance the value of the ongoing conversation between the patient, the healthcare provider, and other patients where appropriate.

AI-Led

In the "Star Trek" series "Voyager," the ship's doctor was an AI known as the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH). In the show, the EMH is designed to be a human-plus tool. However, the ship's healthcare quickly becomes AI-led when Voyager finds itself transported to a remote part of the galaxy with no hope of bringing a living doctor on board.

Perhaps there will be a similar progression in real-world healthcare, given the current shortage of medical professionals, especially in remote or rural areas. As people become comfortable with AI-driven healthcare and technology progresses, perhaps we'll trust AI "medics" more and more. It'll be a gradual shift, but one day we might notice that some of our healthcare is AI-led, deferring to humans only as needed.

Future-gazing is a notoriously dangerous sport. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: Whatever role there might be for AI medical services in the coming decades, it will need reliable communication infrastructures, and that's something that Vonage knows a thing or two about.

So, in five, 10, or 50 years, it's likely that we'll still hear the phrase, "The doctor will see you now." It's just that the doctor might not be in the room … or human.

Lori Belton
Lori Belton

Lori is a Senior Product Marketer at Vonage with a passion for writing and the tech space.

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