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With Social Distancing Being a Weapon for Combatting COVID-19, the Time for Telehealth Is Now

By Fabio Norfo, IoT Services Sales Manager, Telit

COVID-19 has brought challenges in the healthcare system into deep focus. Prior to the pandemic, the CDC estimated that up to 646,000 people worldwide died from seasonal influenza annually. Now, with a new virus adding significantly to that number, there has been a rapid shift toward digital technologies to allow people to safely consult with medical professionals through telehealth. 

In 2020, in the U.S., for example, the administration temporarily waived specific rules for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid—the nation’s largest insurer that covers approximately 140 million Americans including those from low income families, people with disabilities and the elderly. The result was that a population unlikely to have access to technology enabling telehealth could go to off-site telemedicine locations rather than crowded emergency rooms to be evaluated by emergency healthcare providers. The changes also allowed healthcare providers to treat patients via apps and phone, and for patients with health issues unrelated to COVID-19, doctors would be allowed to monitor them remotely with devices that can measure a patient’s oxygen saturation levels using pulse oximetry.

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In Italy, which was the first European country to be affected by COVID-19, the pandemic caused a disaster never seen before in terms of hospitalizations and deaths. Unprepared much like the rest of the world, large populations had great difficultly interacting with regional healthcare facilities. Now, nearly two years later, telemedicine is poised to be a life saver and a game changer for everyone—patients and providers alike. Key to enabling this remarkable, convenient, safe modality, however, is connectivity. It’s bringing broadband to places where copper and fiber are difficult or expensive to build out, such as rural areas and regions where terrain is rugged.

Cellular connectivity has come a long way in just the last five years alone. According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, 4G network coverage increased two-fold globally between 2015 and 2020 to reach 93% of the world’s population. As broadband access grows worldwide, so does the opportunity to extend medical care to more people. This access is crucial for those who can’t travel to a clinic because it’s far or difficult. 

Recognizing that the mobile phone is now relied on for access to the internet by 5.27 billion people—66.9% of the world’s population—some healthcare organizations are ramping up efforts to transform smartphones into healthcare hubs. For instance, Medicaltech, an Italian-based provider of integrated telemedicine solutions in the cardiology field, is leveraging mobile broadband to drive telemedicine adoption with Servizio di Telemedicina di Assistenza Integrata (STAI SICURO). This software platform and companion mobile app enable patients’ smartphones to collect and upload data from medical devices (e.g., pulse oximeters, thermometers and sphygmomanometers). The app supports video, allowing patients to interact with doctors and other health care providers.  

Mirella Mastretti, Medicaltech Director of Research and Development, emphasizes that the service provides remote assistance, instrumental diagnosis and dialogue and listening opportunities in these times requiring physical distancing, with this innovative paradigm allowing doctors to be available even at the last minute and in total safety. From a health point of view, Roberto Bianchi, President of Punto Famiglia Assista, says the STAI SICURO system is effective and has proved to be simple to use, which is a fundamental aspect for his patients. 

To ensure STAI SICURO has reliable broadband connectivity, Medicaltech partnered with Telit, which provides SIM cards pre-provisioned with 4G service. The SIM cards free Medicaltech and STAI SICURO users from researching and choosing a mobile operator. This freedom speeds deployment and enables Medicaltech to market the solution to a bigger pool of potential customers. In addition, Telit’s OPTIMUS billing solution analyzes each SIM’s data usage and assigns it to the most cost-effective data plan. 

Dr. Francesco Chiumeo, a general practitioner in the province of Trento and President of Sermeda, a medical cooperative, says STAI SICURO is a real format virtual clinic allowing patient for evaluation and monitoring by vital parameters collection and immersive televisit possibilities. As frontline healthcare professionals continue to work tirelessly to provide critical care to unprecedented numbers of patients, flexibility and innovation are needed now more than ever. The necessity of social distancing can be overcome with telemedicine and “Stai Sicuro” is an opportunity. Telehealth is likely to be foundational in moving the healthcare industry forward. 

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.

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