By Bill Siwicki

Telehealth levels peaked during the pandemic, for well-established reasons. While visits have been declining from the peak, virtual care experts predict the future will hold a mix of digital and in-person healthcare.

Moving forward, mobile devices can help facilitate this hybrid telehealth world. When healthcare facilities struck down on visiting hours, providers found unique ways to adapt. For example, many healthcare facilities received donated mobile devices that allowed patients to communicate with family, friends and even specialist doctors who were unable to visit.

While mobile devices have brought many benefits to healthcare providers during the ongoing pandemic and likely will continue to bring more benefits in the future of telehealth, there also have been challenges around security, especially dealing with sensitive information like electronic health records.

Healthcare IT News interviewed Dr. Sean Kelly, chief medical officer at Imprivata, a digital identity, security and mobile provisioning company, to discuss telemedicine and mobile devices, and the challenges that come with mobile devices used during virtual care.

Q. What has been the expanded role mobile devices have been playing in healthcare and telemedicine during the pandemic?

A. We all saw how the pandemic accelerated the adoption of mobile devices in healthcare. Healthcare providers found ways to use this technology to adapt to the unique challenges and circumstances they were facing for the very first time.

As the healthcare industry and the general population navigated COVID-19 protocols, one solution that emerged was telehealth appointments. Patients and healthcare providers found telehealth appointments provide many benefits.

For one, it reduces the risk of unnecessary travel and contact with others. Second, when PPE was scarce to obtain, holding an appointment through a phone or laptop helped save precious and lifesaving equipment. One might say that mobile devices are the best PPE of all. And lastly, it saves time for parties that would have had to drive to an appointment and sit in a waiting room.

When we think about mobile devices in healthcare, one might have an image of the scenario above – telehealth appointments with the patient in one location and the healthcare professional in another. A sometimes lesser-known role of mobile devices is with patients who are at a hospital, rehab center or any other in-person setting.

Many healthcare centers reduced or even eliminated visitor hours during the pandemic, leaving in-person patients cut off from family and friends. Once this occurred, many healthcare facilities started receiving donations of mobile devices for patients to communicate with loved ones who were unable to visit. Companies like T-Mobile donated 40,000 phone chargers to hospitals nationwide to help families and friends stay connected.

Mobile devices also helped in-person patients and healthcare practitioners connect with other healthcare specialists across the world. At a time when so little was known about COVID-19, it was crucial to have a direct line to communicate and collaborate with other professionals.

Q. As telehealth visits decline from the peak, many healthcare experts predict the future will hold a mix of virtual care and in-person care. What role will mobile devices play in this new hybrid style of healthcare?

A. I fully agree that the pandemic has changed the future of healthcare, and as a result there will be an evolving blend of virtual and in-person care. This means that mobile devices will continue to play a crucial role in connecting patients and healthcare providers.

Telehealth levels may dip as the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but there will always be a place for telehealth in healthcare. I can imagine many scenarios where a telehealth appointment would be preferred to an in-person appointment.

For example, those in rural areas can save the hours it would take to drive to a doctor’s appointment by simply using their phone or laptop. Virtual appointments are also appealing for those who are immunocompromised and need to limit the risk of in-person exposures to other people.

For healthcare practitioners, mobile devices will also continue to provide many benefits that were demonstrated during the pandemic. Mobile technology helps increase caregiving capacity beyond the “four walls” of a hospital, safely and securely.

This is particularly important to help with the perennial overcrowding and capacity issues that many hospitals struggle with. This has been true for years, but is even more important during times of social distancing and increased infection control precautions.

Of course, having the option to go in-person for appointments and check-ups will give patients and providers ease of mind, since this was not even a possibility for many during the height of the pandemic. I expect that the future of healthcare will involve conversations between patients and practitioners to decide what types of appointments can be virtual versus in-person.

To take this idea even further, I predict that in the near future, telehealth will just be considered healthcare. Take banking, for example: Most banking activities can be done virtually, but nobody calls it “telebanking” – it’s just banking.

Mobile devices and virtual technology will become so ingrained in healthcare that the term telehealth may disappear from our vocabularies, or at least be absorbed into the accepted vernacular as just an extension of good care.

Q. What will be some of the challenges posed by mobile devices in telehealth, and how can provider organizations overcome them?

A. While mobile devices have many benefits, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that they also pose challenges, especially when it comes to the importance of protecting patient privacy. When it comes down to it, cybersecurity is a matter of patient safety. There is no way to compensate someone for lost, stolen or compromised medical records that are personal and sensitive. For mobile devices to continue playing a role in our hybrid healthcare environment, security needs to be top of mind.

One step healthcare organizations can take to keep mobile devices secure is to adopt a zero-trust architecture. Zero trust, like the name implies, inherently trusts no one. An architecture of this type has a checkpoint at every digital identity event, including authorization (“Does this person have the right to see this information?”) and authentication (“Is this person who they say they are?”). Once these checks are cleared, a healthcare professional can gain access to resources at the right time and for the right reasons.

Another way to create a safe and secure environment for mobile devices is to do multifactor authentication. This process makes mobile devices more secure and more private, and allows for a better workflow.

In some ways, it is a positive result that the pandemic accelerated the shift to these types of technologies. The main benefit to multifactor authentication is that it balances security while allowing healthcare professionals to do their jobs efficiently.

Practitioners no longer have to choose between a solution that’s either secure or is easy to use. Well-designed systems with good technology actually allow users easier, faster access, even though the workflow is more secure. Leveraging biometrics, and low-energy Bluetooth, and proximity-awareness are examples of technology that can be both easier/faster and more secure at the same time.

By taking the necessary steps to secure digital identities and networks, healthcare providers can create a safe and secure environment for the mobile devices that will continue to play a role in healthcare.

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