Digital medicine allows patients in rural and remote locations to receive much higher levels of medical attention

There is something of a diaspora going on in the world of medical monitoring. Instruments that used to be clustered into hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices are starting to spread throughout the consumer world, and medical professionals are beginning to take notice. Some, like blood pressure monitors, thermometers, and bathroom scales have been around American homes for years. But now they’re being joined by more sophisticated devices – including units connected wirelessly to one another and to cloud-based medical records. Together, they hold the potential to upend the practice of medicine as we know it.

Consumer wearables, for example, have been advancing rapidly. Starting with the relatively simple activity trackers introduced a few years ago, systems offered today by a number of familiar vendors including Apple, Samsung, and Amazon can now monitor heart rate, calories burned, blood pressure, seizures, physical strain, stress, and the release of certain biochemicals, as well as suggesting which workout routines would be most effective for you. Other health-related indicators, including mood changes, blood alcohol, ECGs, and health risk assessments, are currently under development for wearables. In addition, work is underway to integrate information from their sensors into the wearer’s electronic medical records so that, at least in principle, a patient with a heart condition could regularly share electrocardiogram readings with their doctor, no matter how far apart they may be.

Other technology companies are also enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in the multi-trillion-dollar healthcare industry, and many have already done so – particularly in areas that involve healthcare data. At the same time, though, Covid-19 has changed the game for everyone.

For example, one of its most likely legacies will be the relocation of America’s workforce from central office concentrations into widely dispersed private homes. But that decentralization echoes another important reality: that despite more than a century of urbanization, there is still a significant rural population, and that population needs medical attention as much as their urban counterparts. But for them, a full-service hospital or clinic may be many hours away. Their choices for care are rather limited. Health professionals are reluctant to set up shop in rural areas. It would be both personally and professionally challenging for them to do so. Yet a rural diabetes patient will need the same forms of care as an urban patient. But for rural patients, surrounding themselves with specialists in a remote location is simply unrealistic.

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