The portable medical market has been constantly evolving over the past two decades. As the world becomes increasingly connected, telehealth has become a prevalent trend in medical device technology. By 2016, more than 35 percent of all wireless-enabled consumer medical devices will be connected, supporting the need for highly integrated and ultra-low-power devices.
As this remote healthcare moves toward a sustainable delivery model, it is important to identify critical success factors for telehealth strategy. Because the focus is often on technology, the healthcare ecosystem and patients' mindsets should be addressed first to increase acceptance of remote healthcare services. This initiative is shaping the future of electronic devices while supporting innovative, connected healthcare with privacy and on-demand and adaptive user experiences. Next-generation microcontrollers (MCUs) have a prevalent role in the telehealth ecosystem by aggregating smart-sensing solutions with ultra-low-power and low-cost considerations.
In 2012, there were approximately 308,000 patients remotely monitored by healthcare providers worldwide for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, and mental health conditions. The majority of these patients were hospitalized, then released. Because healthcare providers in the US are working to reduce re-admission rates and to track disease progression, telehealth is projected to reach 1.8 million patients worldwide by 2017, according to InMedica's study, "The World Market for Telehealth." Silicon manufacturers have ample opportunities to play in this expanding market. But they would need to have the correct approach, not only to focus on technological challenges, but also on social acceptance of e-health services. By e-health we’re referring to any healthcare practice supported by electronic processes and communication -- microcontrollers and connectivity solutions, essentially. The main challenges to the advancement and wide adoption of e-health solutions are confidentiality, reimbursement, and legal and ethical considerations.
A few critical success factors are listed below. While enabled by latest generation embedded processing devices, they rely on a patient’s perception of:
- data storage and data mining, where information needs to be integrated with technology and trusted, because online data storage and retrieval are indispensable to support telehealth’s concept;
- data access control, as specified in the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, where improved patient privacy and data integrity set the standards for interoperability;
- biomedical technology, for which appropriate engineering solutions need to be developed and qualified;
- telecommunication infrastructure and wireless diversity, to bridge network coverage gaps;
- government guidance and policies related to healthcare, insurance, infrastructure, and technology;
- confidence level and accuracy of a remote diagnostic; and
- healthcare provider adoption and deployment of telehealth systems, networks, and training to professional caregivers.
Telehealth solutions are expected to reduce overall costs. The usage of remote patient monitoring
increased by 22.2 percent in the past two years. Due to the slow adoption of the critical success factors listed earlier, telehealth device revenues only grew by 5 percent from 2010 to 2011, and 18 percent from 2011 to 2012. The same InMedica study attributes the slow revenue growth over the last year to poor economic conditions that have led to restrictions in healthcare funding in Europe and ambiguity in the impact of healthcare reform and re-admission penalties on telehealth in the US. Analysts remain confident that telehealth is projected to be increasingly incorporated into post-acute care strategies from 2013 onward, because it is listed by the US Centre for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as a significant way to reduce re-admissions. Moreover, as an ever-increasing number of patients enter the insurance pool, healthcare payers are expected to adopt telehealth as a management tool to reduce in-patient costs.
The current challenge for equipment vendors and their integrated circuit suppliers is to find the right balance between features and cost, because there is a general sentiment that if consumers, insurers, or government agencies are paying fixed fees for service, it will be difficult to deploy telehealth. Equipment vendors are chartered with the difficult task of minimizing overhead costs and seeking key attributes for next-generation devices supporting new e-health services. Ultra-low-power microcontrollers enable a longer battery lifetime for cost-sensitive equipment in a subsidized ecosystem.
Consequently, InMedica forecasts that in 2013, the telehealth market will grow by 55 percent worldwide, in terms of device and service revenues. Telehealth silicon vendors and other stakeholders have an opportunity to help healthcare providers develop an effective post-acute care strategy. For telehealth to be successful in reaching a wider audience, it needs to become part of a full patient care model. Secured and connected solutions are likely to support this model once patient concerns are being addressed first: confidentiality and privacy being the most important barriers to overcome.