Human beings are community creators by nature. We’re just not built to function in isolation. Our physical and social evolutionary paths have developed side-by-side throughout history, so it shouldn’t be any surprise to see how much of our collaborative effort and technological innovation are still devoted toward keeping us connected. From the printing press to the telegraph and from the radio to the internet, we’re continually creating new ways to put people in touch with one another – because it’s unhealthy, and even dangerous, to wall ourselves away.
We’ve talked in previous blogs about the explosion of new medical technologies in putting invaluable, potentially life-saving healthcare within easier reach in a world where “bringing people together” actually often means finding more effective ways to keep them functional while separated. The last few years spent learning to tackle a global pandemic have only served to underscore the critical role that telehealth and telemedicine developments will continue to play in the future. From specialised medical teleconferencing systems to breakthroughs in biotelemetry devices and the Internet of Medical Things, cutting-edge ideas are driving the very definition of healthcare into new territory every year.
Even with the social and practical restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic now lowered, we’re still very much dealing with the effects of the crisis. Being forced apart from friends, family and co-workers during an incredibly stressful time has been an enormous shock to the system for society as a whole. While the vaccine rollout has blunted some of the worst of the outbreak’s effects, there’s still a great and understandable sense of anxiety around “getting back to normal”, and it’s having a serious impact on people’s mental wellbeing. The loneliness, stress and overwhelming sense of isolation so many of us have been suffering through for years now won’t simply evaporate with the lifting of restrictions. As our understanding and awareness of mental health grow, the spotlight on developing telehealth and telemedicine techniques will only intensify.
Tackling mental health issues has always been about connecting people with the help they need, and that starts by identifying the people who are struggling. That challenge alone has seen far too many people falling through the cracks for years, simply because the very isolation they’re suffering from makes it so difficult to see the signs and reach out in time. Developments in predictive analytics and data sharing are striking straight at the heart of this problem, finding new ways to analyse and explore the data and make better policy decisions in the workplace and healthcare sector. AI and machine learning technologies are working to spot emerging mental health issues from complex, information-dense sources like social media, with the potential not just to help reach out to people who are struggling, but to develop a deeper understanding of mental health trends across entire populations. While a certain amount of caution about how this data is collected and handled is essential, the potential for properly regulated technologies like these is undeniably immense.
On an individual level, once a patient is receiving medical care, it’s often critical that they receive continual, tailored support. Again, new technologies are being developed to more effectively collect and process the needed information. The popularisation of wearable, internet-connected consumer devices, just to pick an example, has presented an enormous opportunity to use real-time patient data to customise their care.
While it might seem strange to use AI and automation to tackle the problem of providing mental and physical healthcare to isolated people, making and maintaining that all-important contact between the patient and the help they need is always the goal. A lot of the most innovative work happening in healthcare, for instance, is centring around the development of online communities. In addressing mental health issues in particular, peer support can be an incredibly powerful force. Not only do they offer an ongoing resource for both sufferers and medical professionals, but they’re capable of overcoming the single greatest hurdle in the mental health field: getting the conversation started in the first place. Online health communities encourage isolated individuals to reach out where they would otherwise continue to suffer in silence. With issues like stress, depression and anxiety, that silence can all too often have tragic consequences.
All of this forms the backdrop against which we’re seeing the accelerating rise of telehealth and telemedicine techniques. Venture capital investment in UK health technology alone has exploded by 900% since 1996, with the country’s telehealth market expected to maintain a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 10.4% in the next 5 years. The field is still a comparatively young one, but the forces driving its growth range from the needs of an ageing population to the rapid popular uptake of consumer-level devices. The pandemic may have thrown telehealth into sharp focus in recent years, but the push toward forging meaningful connections between people is as old as humanity itself.
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