min read
April 24, 2017

Could Virtual Reality Minimize the Costs of Healthcare?

Digital Trends
Virtual Reality

As virtual reality frees the medical practice from geographic and cost constraints, companies need to adopt this technology in the short term with long-term investment in mind.As digital innovation revolutionizes the worlds of retail, travel, communication and many other industries, the delivery of health care has largely continued in traditional fashion. Your devices and record-keeping have gone digital, but basic face-to-face interactions between provider and patient have not been much affected by technological changes. Until recently, that is. In today's flowering of virtual reality, assumptions about the nature of health care are being reconsidered from the ground up. Just as FinTech startups forced incumbent financial institutions to start providing personalized customer experiences, new healthcare-related startups are completely deconstructing the mystique of the doctor-patient encounter. Furthermore, they're accomplishing this disruption while cutting costs. Here are a few of these standout innovations that raise new possibilities for your healthcare company:

A Doctor in Your Pocket

Akos recently announced the launch of its first U.S. healthcare practice, a virtual platform app charging a $49 flat fee for 15 live video minutes with a board-certified Akos physician. These virtual doctors offer 24/7 availability, as well as the professional authority to diagnose, treat and prescribe if necessary. Patients whose needs can't be handled remotely will be referred by Akos to a local provider within the Akos network. The American Medical Association has gone on record as stating that fully 70 percent of office visits can be effectively covered by a telemedicine platform. Akos has no membership or insurance requirements, and it discounts it's per-visit costs for those patients who pay a small monthly subscription charge.This fee-for-service plan is very affordable compared to what many people are used to paying, given the fact that many Americans now have high deductibles they must fulfill before their insurance begins to cover costs. Akos empowers patients to get their questions answered without the need for an in-person clinic visit, and it keeps patients' medical records securely stored on a HIPAA-compliant platform. The combination of unprecedented accessibility and freedom from the necessity of maintaining a physical clinic location makes the Akos model so financially efficient that it may disrupt the entire healthcare delivery model. Akos co-founder Dr. Swaraj Singh states, "The opportunity to fix healthcare, making it accessible and affordable, is enormous. By introducing communities to Akos, we will eliminate the anxiety and uncertainty around healthcare, and instead help patients feel empowered about their healthcare decisions."

Virtual Reality, Real Empathy

If your healthcare company does deliver in-person care, you're well aware that architectural design and building renovation represent a sizable chunk of capital expenditure. Scottish architect David Burgher, collaborating with VR provider Wireframe Immersive, has developed the Virtual Reality Empathy Platform. This modeling platform informs Burgher's designs for assisted living and long-term care facilities. Burgher uses a headset, together with laptop, controller and camera, to simulate the diminished perceptions of patients with dementia. By seeing potential care spaces through the virtual eyes of patients, Burgher states that he can "better consider the lighting, layout, and way-finding for a safer and more independent living environment." Once the simulation has been completed, building can get underway and Burgher notes that "designers will get it right the first time and therefore reduce costs" for the future building's owners.

Expanding Patients' Worlds

Rendever's VR platform opens up the world to older people with disabilities who live in such communities. Rendever's motto is "expanding worlds," and its stunning premise is that virtual reality is the perfect solution for patients whose health conditions prevent them from moving around much in the real physical world. Rendever breaks isolation by letting users explore the globe, and the facilities where it's used report a 40 percent increase in resident happiness.CBS News recently profiled a senior living community where Rendever is stimulating a new level of engagement among residents. These individuals, who can't physically travel anymore, can now virtually travel (via Google Maps and 360-degree films) to Yosemite, to France or even underwater. Rendever originators Lally Evers and Reed Hayes, both grad students at MIT, plan to sell their platform to residential communities for an upfront fee plus a monthly subscription. Hayes notes, "I feel for the people living inside these communities, that they don't have enough stimulation. They need to have a sense of wonder about the world again, they need to be curious, they need to be exploring. And when you're physically not able to do that by yourself, then virtual reality is a wonderful aid to provide that."

Older Patients Are Receptive to VR

Conventional wisdom has suggested that the senior demographic (age 65+) will not respond positively to new technologies such as VR. Experiences such as those with Rendever, outlined above, indicate that this is not the case. A 2016 survey of over 7,000 elderly patients found more of them than expected use digital devices for health monitoring purposes. Furthermore, a majority of survey respondents indicated an interest in using wearables for monitoring health. Lead survey author Ian Manovel commented that "digital health has no age limit."

Workplace Wearables

Wearables have utility for people of all ages and wellness levels, and they have found an especially receptive environment in the business world. Your company financially thrives when your employees stay healthy. The emergence of wearables provides employers with a win-win situation, as they incentivize their workers to take advantage of devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone, Apple Watch and other monitors. Rewards from employers range from gift vouchers and gym passes to lower health insurance premiums. Workers with specific health conditions such as diabetes can earn extra incentives by wearing monitors that help them manage blood sugar levels. Your employees benefit by experiencing greater levels of health and well-being, while you save money by reducing sick days and increasing productivity.The persuasive arithmetic of benefits resulting from wearables in the workplace has led to widespread adoption; by the end of 2016, 21 percent of American adults with internet access are estimated to be using some type of wearable device, and 46 percent of employers offer these devices as part of their workplace wellness program.While the health and cost benefit from employer wearable programs are undeniable, it's important for you to keep in mind a third factor: employee privacy. While your employees may be pleased to track their own fitness levels, they'll probably be less positive about sharing this information with you -- especially since their profiles on these devices may include GPS location, blood pressure, sleep patterns and personal information. The Wall Street Journal reports that workplace wearables are giving rise to a crop of new legal issues concerning the Americans with Disability Act, among other complications. Savvy employers may find a good solution to these issues by using a third-party platform that anonymizes health data and puts firewalls around sensitive individual information.

Managing Health at a Distance

The healthcare industry is one of the fastest growing markets for smart devices, and remote patient monitoring (RPM) accounts for the majority of tech spending in the sector. This trend is partly due to the fact that today's reimbursement laws reward providers for good outcomes, and if a doctor can monitor patients' conditions automatically, then problems can be addressed before they turn into emergencies.Meanwhile, patients in a fragile state of health gain confidence by having their physical condition tracked by their doctor's office, and providers in turn are able to optimize use of their work time. Research published in Telemedicine Health Journal reports that 67 percent of patients reported being "very satisfied" with remote health monitoring, while these tracking tools reduced health costs by 25 percent.Another major benefit offered by remote health monitoring includes significant improvements in patient education. When your patients receive information on the best ways to manage their own specific conditions, they stay more engaged and proactive about their own health, and more compliant with treatment regimens. A new area called "remote health management" is developing, as exemplified by solutions such as Health Harmony from Care Innovations.

Cost-Cutting Is Only the Beginning

There are many non-financial reasons to introduce VR into your healthcare company. Josh Sackman, president of Applied VR, states categorically that "health care is ultimately where we'll see VR's biggest impact to date on humanity." This technology offers enormous benefit in training medical professionals, and it has revolutionized surgical procedures. Surgeons are now able to "see" inside the patient's body before and during a procedure, and streaming real-time images mean that on-the-spot consultation is possible with an expert located half a world away. Therapists use VR to immerse patients in challenging situations, so they can practice healthy response patterns while remaining in an entirely safe space.New applications for VR are being discovered every day. The hardware required for new VR experiences is still being developed, and no doubt in five years' time, the health tech environment will look much different than it does today.However, the fact that virtual reality frees the medical practice from geographic constraints is already giving rise to powerful use cases in the delivery of health care. The potential of VR to make healthcare delivery more cost-effective is already being demonstrated, and your company would be wise to adopt it in the short term with long-term investment in mind.

Centric Digital