Expanding Telehealth in Medicare Could Revolutionize the American Health Care System | Opinion

In Washington's increasingly toxic atmosphere—filled with impeachment hearings, the jostling of the Democratic primary and an obsession with trivial gaffes and scandal over substance—it can be hard to notice when members of both parties collaborate to try and achieve something positive. Fortunately, it does still happen.

One example is a bipartisan bill in the House and Senate to expand telehealth services in Medicare.

Currently, few Americans qualify to have telehealth services covered under Medicare. Those who do must live in remote locations, and the number of services they can access is limited.

The CONNECT Act would greatly expand the number of American seniors who can access services like mental health and emergency care on their phones and tablets by waiving many of these geographic and originating site restrictions. It also greatly expands telehealth options covered under Medicare in rural areas, gives the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the flexibility to waive other rules when needed and allows pilot projects to test new telehealth programs.

While the immediate impact of the bill will be felt mostly in rural areas and limited to certain services, the long-term impact could be revolutionary.

Ninety-six percent of Americans own cellphones of some kind. Eighty-one percent own smartphones, and this number rises every year. This represents critical, existing infrastructure. Combine this infrastructure with experience in other industries, and health care leaders and policymakers should be able to set an ambitious goal for the American health care system.

The goal: Every single American should have access to a doctor 24/7, from any location on the planet.

This may seem far-fetched, but not long ago most of us could not imagine banking, investing and shopping on our phones. But once these services were introduced, people liked the convenience, and new habits were rapidly adopted.

So why not health care? Think about how much easier it would be if instead of traveling to a doctor's office and sitting in a waiting room when you or your child gets an ear infection, you could get a diagnosis and prescription from your own home.

Some doctors have already started doing this. Smartphones already have high definition cameras that would allow for visual diagnoses. There are also a growing number of diagnostic and vitals monitoring kits that pair with smartphones. For example, we work with Sanford Health, headquartered in Sioux Falls, North Dakota. They have incorporated a home medical monitoring kit into their practice to allow for more consistent patient monitoring without requiring travel to the doctor's office.

These examples are just the beginning. "Wearables" tracking biometric data have become ubiquitous. One of us recently started wearing a heart rate monitor that calculates heart rate variability, resting heart rate, the phases of our sleep and calories burned. It uses this information to detect the amount of strain we are putting on our body each day and our level of recovery. This feedback is useful for avoiding sickness and injury. It tells you how much sleep you need and whether it would be best if you did some yoga or stretching instead of a normal workout.

The monitor also regularly asks questions about diet, alcohol and caffeine consumption, screen time use, athletic performance and more. It then analyzes this information with its recorded biometric data to observe your patterns. For instance, data collected has shown that alcohol consumption reduces this user's REM sleep by over 20 percent and deep sleep by 10 percent.

Elderly man telehealth
Think about how much easier it would be if instead of traveling to a doctor’s office, you could get a diagnosis and prescription from your own home, the authors write. iStock/Getty

It only seems natural that our doctors should be able to access the same data if patients wish it. The introduction of 5G wireless networks could dramatically expand the amount of data being collected and shared with our doctors. Imagine the possibilities from even more sensitive data tracking unlocking more insights—combined with the experience and training of your doctor—to guide you in monitoring and managing your health care. We could completely invert the current model of annual checkups to one of continuous biometric monitoring, with real-time feedback for our health and well-being. This new paradigm could catch potentially life-threatening conditions early, not only saving lives and improving quality of life, but also saving money by avoiding expensive emergency interventions.

The first step toward this vision of a truly modernized health system is giving the option of virtual health services to more people and getting people used to using their mobile phones as a delivery system for certain health care services. The CONNECT for Health Act is a significant step in that direction.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is the chairman of Gingrich 360, the host of the Newt's World podcast and author of the New York Times best-sellers Understanding Trump and Trump's America. His latest book, Trump vs. China: Facing America's Greatest Threat, is out now.

Joe DeSantis is the chief strategy officer for Gingrich 360. He leads the consulting division, with clients in health care, aviation and education.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.