Simon Hill, Chief Technical Officer for connectivity specialist Excelerate Technology, discusses the challenges of performing diagnostics in areas with compromised phone reception
Telemedicine has advanced considerably over the past decade, not least because we live in a connected world. From GP consultations through to kerb-side intervention and care, that technology has developed to such an extent lives are potentially being saved and hospital conveyance is possibly reduced, demonstrates that the care pathway is evolving.
But there’s a fly in the ointment – our connected world has gaps where no, or very limited connectivity exists. Of the many advantages telemedicine has delivered, such as remote diagnostics and consultation, the most promising effect is the increase more and more treatments being delivered away from traditional settings. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this widespread use of remote GP consultations, which has been a major benefit for the majority of patients who are now routinely accustomed to this model of care.
While this has reduced the burden for many, particularly the older generation who may struggle with the logistics or indeed expense of getting to their named surgery, it has also helped ease the pressures on GP surgeries.
The fly in the ointment
But what about the digital divide, or emergency care in remote areas? Or treating those who are harder to find and of no fixed abode? It’s here where the technology needs robust connectivity to ensure the transfer of data, or remote diagnoses and treatments can be fulfilled.
There’s a raft of video platforms such as ExStream and even wearable devices using Skype or WhatsApp, which are nowadays widely deployed. What isn’t so widely reported, however, is that for all this to work seamlessly at say, a road traffic collision (RTC), is the requirement for robust and resilient connectivity. How is that data, in whichever guise it’s shared or delivered, transmitted if there is no terrestrial infrastructure, and has been compromised or as is often the case, contended due to the sheer amount of traffic vying for bandwidth? It is this problem that must be addressed. Without resilient and secure connectivity, even the best technology available on the market becomes redundant.
This challenge is indeed significant, but through advancements in connectivity technology, we are witnessing significant strides forward, where barriers such as ‘not spots’ are being overcome through robust and ubiquitous ‘hybrid connectivity’ – a bonding of satellite and cellular communications to form an ecosystem that underpins all other technology. With the introduction of Elon Musk’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, the opportunities for new connectivity has increased exponentially, making our connected worlds less fragmented.
Some 20 years ago, we at Excelerate Technology were delivering satellite broadband connectivity for our emergency services clients when, for instance, there was no broadband infrastructure – or the terrestrial infrastructure was not fit for purpose. Back then, our cellular networks were also extremely unreliable or simply couldn’t offer the bandwidth required to overcome limits on data packet size or volumes of traffic.
Now, while broadband has greater coverage and we largely rely on a 4G / 5G cellular network, satellite is still the most effective way to guarantee reaching the parts other channels can’t get anywhere near.
Connecting the dots
So how does this all knit together? By way of example, we have recently embarked upon a €5.7m initiative, co-funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), ARTES 5G Strategic Programme Line (SPL) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA), to create the prototype for pioneering an always connected, cloud-based digital ambulance of the future. Participating partners are working closely with the NHS to deliver ambulances that are always linked via 4G, 5G and satellite.
This technology will enable a whole range of applications to work in concert with each other to substantially improve patient experiences while transforming the way ambulance services deliver ‘see and treat’ care. Crucially, it will function as a remote consultation room giving paramedics access to medical records, and specialist clinicians access to patients to provide treatment en-route to hospitals. Having the added assurance of a robust hybrid connectivity ecosystem is the final piece of the jigsaw.
And this is how the ‘fly in the ointment’ can be avoided – no matter where an ambulance or crew may be. First responders and healthcare professionals will be able to provide most of the care to patients without unnecessary conveyance to emergency departments, while providing a whole range of new on-the-spot services such as investigative procedures, tests and greater use of technology to enable specialists located remotely to treat patients immediately through telemedicine.
Crucially, there should also be easy access to a range of diagnostics from phlebotomy, electrocardiogram and spirometry to more complex diagnostics like MRI and endoscopy, without having to bring patients into hospitals. This could revolutionise NHS care.
Moreover, healthcare professionals are now finding and treating vulnerable groups who are harder to locate, or for whatever reason may be more susceptible to illnesses such as Hepatitis C, TB and more latterly, COVID-19.
While this has been talked about as the future of healthcare for some time, it is with us now. The time has come to harness hybrid connectivity, because the technology we have available to us today can deliver so much more than just a face-to-face consultation, it’s instrumental in accelerating patients’ access to healthcare while at the same time reducing the inflow of patients through conventional hospital triage.
Telemedicine is no longer just about remote GP services; it goes to the heart of community healthcare provision at both primary and secondary healthcare levels and for this reason it is not compromised by weak conventional connectivity infrastructure. Hybrid connectivity is the future.