As the world — and the world of payment and commerce — ready themselves for the deployment of 5G mobile technology, the healthcare industry is anticipating the likely changes, some of which will involve wearables and billing.
Over the next three years or so, 5G deployment will result in an additional $12 billion in mobile commerce revenue for U.S. retailers, according to Adobe Digital Insights. That, of course, “assumes a smooth, scheduled rollout of 5G networks. Nonetheless, it’s a clear statement that when friction is removed from the user experience, people respond.”
The 5G impact on healthcare will involve more than direct commerce or payments.
The mobile technology, according to observers, promises to better support telehealth solutions by providing stronger, more reliable network connections for a wider geographical area than 4G LTE. According to reports, “the network standard will also help usher in a new era of ‘personalized healthcare,’ in which massive volumes of patient data can be used to develop predictive analytics, which can then be tailored to an individual patient and their illness.”
The new mobile communications technology will also support the quicker transmission of large image files — such as those produced by MRIs — “which can improve both access to care and the quality of care.”
In addition, the deployment of 5G will support the growth of the telemedicine market, which, according to a Market Research Future report, will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.5 percent until 2013. “North and South America currently account for the largest share of telemedicine market, (while) the Asia Pacific is expected to [be] the fastest-growing region during the forecast period, due to a rising geriatric population, increasing prevalence of chronic diseases and developing healthcare infrastructure,” the report stated.
Telemedicine services like Doctor on Demand — which now operates in 50 states — connect patients with physicians, psychiatrists and mental health workers entirely across digital channels. Instead of going to the doctor’s office, the doctor comes to one’s screen of choice, as described in a recent PYMNTS interview with Hill Ferguson, the company’s CEO.
Founded in 2012, the telemedicine startup was once a pay-out-of-pocket-only service (insurance didn’t cover those televisits), operating in a few states and simply trying to move out its concept. The platform recently started to offer a nationwide telehealth initiative with Walmart, covered by many insurance plans, to help put more customers in front of digitally delivered doctors, with thousands of board-certified physicians ready to treat both urgent and mental healthcare needs.
The deployment of 5G, combined with further launches of telemedicine services, will help address a major problem for U.S. healthcare. As Ferguson told PYMNTS, there exists in the country a physician gap of about 35,000 doctors. By 2030, the estimates put that figure at about 100,000. Healthcare, he said, is itself sick — and it’s not reasonable to believe that patients already waiting to see a doctor for 18 days are going to be okay with that number doubling or tripling. Moreover, as the economy is changing and more workers are self-employed through gig work, there needs to be affordable out-of-pocket alternatives, and telemedicine offers that.
The coming world of 5G (often combined with other developing technologies seen in retail and payments) will enable more data to flow more efficiently over mobile networks, and that will have a variety of benefits involving healthcare commerce and billing.
As one healthcare trade publication recently put it, “hospitals will have more tools – including but not limited to technologies such as artificial intelligence, high-performance computing and 5G – to more effectively use as much data as they can to establish longitudinal records with a 360-degree view of the patient. That will mean connectivity to literally hundreds of data sources, including EHR, text, imaging, audio, billing and claims, just to name a few.”
That doesn’t mean the transition to 5G will be easy, of course, as that report noted. “That will require sizable financial investments and heavy lifting to make sure the technology infrastructure is in place. But the opportunities for return on investment, through new revenue and cost savings, are significant, too.”
5G and Insurance
More capability for efficient data transmission over 5G networks promises to benefit the market for wearables. Those devices can provide detailed health information to not only consumers, patients and medical services providers, but also insurance companies, which can then use the data to better craft policies or offer incentives to customers to take better care of themselves.
That’s the idea, at least – and it is at least the rough motivation behind Humana’s decision, announced in September, to use Fitbit Care, a recently released wearables platform from Fitbit that “combines health coaching and virtual care,” and stems from Fitbit’s acquisition earlier this year of Twine Health, the health coaching platform that aims to help people achieve better wellness outcomes.
So far, the insurance company has not detailed any insurance discounts or incentives it might offer customers who use the technology, but observers expect that, in general, those benefits will be part of the larger health insurance landscape.
In a 2017 paper entitled “How 5G (and Concomitant Technologies) Will Revolutionize Healthcare” — written by experts from Nokia, Pakistan’s Information Technology University and the U.K.’s University of Glasgow — the authors wrote that “payment incentives should be redesigned so that outcomes and values are rewarded and not a volume of procedures,” and that “in such a patient-centric healthcare, patients will be empowered with information and the preferences and convenience of patients will automatically be incorporated.”
5G and Wearables
Such ideas depend heavily on data — the collection of it, and the relatively easy access to it by all parties involved in patient care. That would seem to work in favor of the further growth of the market for health-related wearables.
Fitbit is one company betting on that growth.
During the third quarter of 2018, Fitbit sold 3.5 million wearable devices, and experienced a boost in smartwatch sales. Upon releasing the firm’s most recent financials, company executives also said they are working with federal regulators on tests of Fitbit technology for more use in healthcare. In Q3, the company experienced 26 percent growth in its healthcare business, and Fitbit said that healthcare is taking on more importance for the firm as the whole — a point underscored by Fitbit’s recent pair-up with Google to make it easier for doctors to access health information as tracked on Fitbit devices.
The company’s growing expectations in healthcare come amid calls for what amounts to a healthcare payments moonshot — a point detailed in depth in a recent PYMNTS interview with Dr. Giovanni Colella, co-founder and CEO of OODA Health. Such transformation, he said, “is hard when you are talking about firms with tens of millions of lives insured working with several different legacy systems they’ve patched together through acquisitions. The complexity of making these changes is huge.”
The goal, according to Colella?
Moving healthcare away from today’s complex, rarified, opaque and unpredictable system into something that much more closely approximates the retail experience they encounter in normal, everyday consumer interactions. Doing so could get a boost from 5G — the transparency required to approximate those retail interactions depends on the quick transmission not only of large amounts of data from often disparate sources, but also the creation of user experiences that comfort consumers (remember, they are in the midst of medical care and problems, which are usually stressful situations) and make them feel informed and confident about payments.
The road to more seamless, efficient and transparent healthcare payments will certainly be a hard one. But it is also true that 5G is coming, and that the mobile communications technology is all but certain to play a major role in that and other healthcare changes.