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Telehealth a target for venture capitalists as its potential to diagnose coronavirus grows

Faster internet speeds, better tech and avoiding other potentially sick patients is pushing investors to pump money into the remote-care space.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Technological advances are rapidly changing the way healthcare is delivered, and in few arenas is this more visible than in telehealth. As a treatment option, remote video-conferencing with a doctor or health professional is a concept that is becoming more viable, as internet connection speeds increase and devices are created that allow for tests and diagnoses to be administered virtually.

The emergency spending package for the coronavirus announced last week includes $500 million to extend telemedicine services to seniors and waived Medicare's geographical restrictions on telehealth.

For these reasons, telehealth is poised to be a helpful treatment option for those diagnosed, or suspected to have, the COVID-19 coronavirus, which is making its way around the globe at an alarming rate.

The potential for telehealth to address the coronavirus is drawing the interest of venture capitalists, who are already pouring money into the space, but may increase their activity as the model grows in viability and popularity.

Steven Shill, national leader at the BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence and Innovation, sees this confluence of factors as a "perfect storm" that could lead to a dramatically increased ability to screen and test people for the virus, protecting not only the public but the healthcare professionals who are treating patients.

"Now with technology where it is and where it's going, and especially with the impending rollout of the 5G network – which I think will assist dramatically in terms of being able to access people in a cost-efficient way – I think telemedicine will play a much larger role, not only in screening but in treating," he said.

The benefits to patients are clear. Having access to telemedicine, said Shill, would alleviate the fear of going to a hospital or physician's office and potentially exposing themselves to other individuals who may be carriers. That can provide a tremendous amount of comfort to someone who doesn't want to be exposed, and so an increasing number of providers are looking to telehealth as a catalyst for improving containment efforts.

"If I were an older person, coronavirus is much more dangerous," he said. "I would feel a hell of a lot happier fumbling my way through telemedicine, even though I've not grown up in the technological era, as opposed to potentially being exposed. The coronavirus could be a catalyst for the acceleration of telemedicine the likes of which we've never seen before."

PRIVATE EQUITY AND VENTURE CAPITAL

There's no good time for a coronavirus to spread. Young people, the elderly and the immunocompromised are particularly susceptible to the disease, and risk death if infected. But if it's going to come, it's fortunate in a way that it comes when internet speeds and the use of video conferencing are on the rise. When 5G is implemented, digital communication will be near-instantaneous, and the way health data is transmitted from wearable technologies will increase as well. Telehealth is viable now, and will become even more so.

Private equity and venture capital has spent a lot of money in the space because they're believers in disruption and changing old paradigms, said Shill. Significant investments have been made as of late.

K Health, makers of an artificial intelligence-powered medical app, recently raised about $28 million to replace initial doctors' visits for certain conditions, for example. Aurora Health dedicated roughly $126 million to prevent illnesses and lower costs.

"These types of investments are just a smattering of what's going on," said Shill. "I'm working with a company that uses remote advisers to assist people with certain gastrointestinal-type issues. So it's across the board, from treating the elderly who don't have access to transportation, to using data for real-time monitoring, to chronic illnesses, to primary care … to providing access to remote rural communities. It's a clean slate, so if someone has money to invest, they'll find a space that's attractive to them because this is going to be a vast, untapped area."

These technological developments will surely come with culture and process changes for healthcare organizations, as doctors will be promoted to transition from projecting a certain bedside manner to more of a "video-side" manner. The investment in training clinicians to do this kind of thing could be a focus for private equity or venture capital investments.

The amount of money being pumped into telehealth varies wildly across the board, said Shill. Measuring in thousands of dollars, he said investments have run the gamut from the low teens, to the low 40s, to hundreds of thousands in some rarer cases.

The good news for investors is that the returns are increasing, especially as wearable devices become more common and the costs of implementing remote care steadily decrease.

"In order to access the population, we're going to have to seriously look at employing at least some aspects of telemedicine to try to alleviate the problem," said Shill.

"I'm not excited about going into a doctor's office at this point," he said. "On a good day, it's a breeding ground. I'd rather just call up my doctor or use video conferencing, and if I was an elderly person, there's no way I'd have grandma or grandpa going to the doctor's office or even having blood tests at this point. I think you'll see more and more testing kits being distributed. Those kits will be connected to healthcare organizations and you might even see some remote testing fairly quickly if they can roll that ability out."
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com