From Remote to Remarkable: The Emergence of AI in Telemedicine

By Ayesha Khan, Director of Reputation Management, Renaissance, panel doctor at 24HrDOC
LinkedIn: Ayesha Khan

From primitive telephone calls to advanced video consultations and from remote “radio doctors” to remarkable AI-assisted telesurgeries, telemedicine has come a long way.

While telemedicine had been largely overlooked, hidden behind the curtains before COVID-19, its popularity exploded during the pandemic, bringing it to the forefront of modern healthcare.

The data speaks for itself:

  • Telehealth usage spiked to 78x between February and April 2020 and stabilized to 38x the pre-COVID-19 level by December. (McKinsey)
  • Medicare visits through telehealth increased 63-fold from 2019 to 2020. (HHS)
  • The use of telepsychiatry surged by 556% between March 11 and April 22, 2020. (SAMHSA)

These numbers prove beyond doubt that telehealth usage skyrocketed during the pandemic, and unlike a fad, it’s here to stay.

Although the pandemic resurrected telemedicine from its deep slumber, a wave of innovation – ML/AI, robotics, wearables, AR/VR, Big Data – propelled it further. While other technologies fueled the rise and momentum of virtual healthcare, AI’s cutting-edge analytical capabilities may revolutionize healthcare beyond recognition.

How AI Can Revolutionize Telemedicine

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the world by storm, with the potential to transform almost all industries on the planet. Telemedicine is no exception, with 20% of healthcare firms already pioneering early AI adoption by 2021, per a 2023 Statista report. The same report projects the global healthcare AI market to balloon from $11 billion in 2021 to $188 billion in 2030, reflecting a staggering CAGR of 37%. These numbers demonstrate a huge demand and groundbreaking potential for AI-driven telemedicine.

However, despite the telemedicine boom post-pandemic, several challenges remain. They are patient uncertainty about telemedicine, limited diagnostic capabilities, telemedicine adoption barriers, doctor burnout, and privacy concerns, to mention a few.

The good news is that with its advanced technology, AI can overcome these challenges and revolutionize the digital healthcare industry. AI can help patients analyze their symptoms and decide whether they need an in-person appointment at the clinic or an e-visit would suffice. It can also prove to be a boon to healthcare professionals by assisting with the collection of patients’ initial information before consultation and providing them with treatment or prescription guidance after the visit, reducing their burnout, according to 2023 Medscape US Physician Burnout & Depression Report.

AI Use Cases in Telemedicine

In addition, AI is being integrated with several other telemedicine applications with successful outcomes:

Chatbots and Virtual Assistants
AI-based chatbots and VAs facilitate several valuable healthcare functions. They help in providing basic advice, patient engagement, appointment scheduling, and preliminary diagnostics. It improves patient experience and reduces provider workload.

AI-powered Diagnostics
Without AI, telediagnosis can be difficult for doctors, sometimes causing misdiagnoses. However, AI-driven diagnostics allows analyzing huge amounts of patient data, X-rays, CT scans, etc. quickly and accurately, enabling physicians to make precise diagnoses.

Remote Patient Monitoring and Predictive Analytics
AI-enabled analysis of real-time data from wearables enables remote monitoring of patient’s health, resulting in timely interventions and reduced hospitalizations. Besides, AI can analyze patient data to predict illness development, progression, and recurrence, and create personalized care plans.

Medical Training
AI use in telemedicine is not limited to patients. AI algorithms can scour mountains of medical data to inform medical professionals of the latest advancements. It can also help create adaptive tutoring systems with learning modules tailored to individual learners.

Telehealth Services + AI = Benefits Unlocked

The AI-telemedicine merger for various applications offers numerous benefits, enhancing patient healthcare journeys. AI-powered RPM (remote patient monitoring) can improve healthcare access for those with disabilities or living in underserved or rural areas by reducing their travel costs. AI chatbots are available 24/7 to provide remote consultations for emergencies and on-demand mental health therapy. The use of AI for medical data analysis and reasoning can improve workflow efficiency and reduce work overloads. While AI handles administrative tasks and less urgent cases, doctors can tend to more critical patients.

Moreover, AI can assist physicians in preparing personalized treatment plans based on each patient’s needs and medical history, improving patient outcomes. AI-powered wearables can also remind patients to take medications and follow their healthcare routines. Wearables connected to AI can help collect patients’ vitals and analyze them in real time to provide timely care.

Governments and healthcare organizations worldwide are leveraging AI to enhance telehealth services. For instance, the US VA has launched AI-powered chatbots to manage patient appointments, diagnoses, and care. Also, the Washington University School of Medicine has joined the NIH’s Bridge2AI program by initiating a project that studies the potential of AI for diagnosing diseases based on a patient’s voice.

Challenges of Implementing AI in Telemedicine

Despite its several use cases and benefits, AI in telemedicine raises a few concerns:

  • Accuracy and Patient Safety: Although AI improves healthcare workflows, it can still make mistakes, including misdiagnoses, medication errors, or providing incorrect information. Training AI systems with comprehensive data, including humans to aid diagnoses, and continually monitoring AI performance are the solutions.
  • Data Privacy and Compliance: Healthcare digitization makes data privacy and security issues real and requires telemedicine platforms to obtain patient consent and comply with regulations like HIPAA and GDPR. Since AI needs large datasets for training and analysis, it raises concerns about using sensitive patient data, making it crucial to encrypt, store, and transfer it securely.
  • Ethical Considerations: Ethical considerations also affect AI integration, with concerns regarding algorithmic bias and transparency. Telemedicine platforms must follow ethical practices by ensuring fair and responsible use of AI to maintain the integrity of healthcare systems
  • Inequitable Access to Technology: Another challenge is the limited technology access among underserved communities and digital literacy among older adults. Equitable access among them requires subsidized technology proliferation and comprehensive user training.

Overcoming challenges in AI-powered telemedicine requires collaborative efforts from tech companies, policymakers, and healthcare experts for ethical and equitable implementation. Initial steps to address these concerns are already underway. For instance, ATA has published AI Principles to ensure responsible integration and use of AI in telemedicine. Moreover, the US government is making ongoing efforts “to promote the safe, secure, and trustworthy use of AI”.

The Future of AI in the Telemedicine Realm

The future of AI in telemedicine seems bright. It holds immense potential to create a more responsible, accessible, efficient, and personalized healthcare experience for all.

AI is evolving at breakneck speed, with an ever-increasing likelihood of revolutionizing healthcare within a decade or less. Several advancements combining AI with telemedicine are in progress and will soon see the light of day. Accurate diagnostics and medical imaging, patient-centered care, personal digital assistants for providers and patients, smart RPM with AI-powered wearables, elimination of language barriers, proactive medical interventions, predictive analytics, reducing provider burnouts, and medical knowledge sharing are only some of the prospective benefits of AI in telemedicine.

However, policymakers and implementers must ensure further research, development, and responsible implementation of AI in telemedicine to provide ethical, safe, and secure healthcare delivery. With a proactive approach, it can bring about a new era of healthcare – one that’s equitable, effective, and empowering for both the patients and providers.