Our blog

eHealth – can telcos adapt to a new, multi-stakeholder world?

For example, according to the authors, more than half the consultations delivered by Kaiser Permanente, a US-based healthcare provider, were virtual, with the staff involved using a combination of video conferencing, phones and email to interact with patients. Similarly, Banner Health, another US health provider with 28 hospitals spread across six states, takes advantage of centralised management to provide monitoring and consultation facilities to its patients.

In this case, patients are enabled to leave hospital earlier than would have been the case before the introduction of the new system but they are then monitored while at home and can easily connect to a doctor or nurse at any time of day or night. Although this is a pilot scheme, Banner is reported as expecting the system, once fully rolled out, to reduce admissions by up to 50% and to reduce costs by a third.

All of this is great reading and provides clear evidence that eHealth is fast gathering momentum and moving beyond the realm of PowerPoints and concepts towards full-scale deployments that are already making a positive impact. What makes this particularly interesting is that the article focuses on the providers and the technology companies, such as Philips and GE Healthcare, that are supporting the initiatives and delivering the required solutions. Conspicuous by their absence are the telcos.

Anyone who attended MWC this year will have heard a lot of noise about eHealth and other key verticals that are driving the IoT. eHealth is particularly interesting because services will blend device-to-device communication with the need for conversational dialogues between carers and patients. Are telcos really participating in this revolution or are they merely talking about their role?

I suspect the latter. One area that has long been looked at as offering promise for an enhanced telco role is in that of the application of policy to healthcare – consider a case in which an alarm from a remote monitor triggers a response that needs a carer to make an emergency visit, for example. We can easily imagine how a PCRF might evolve to cater for such cases, but the article also noted how supercomputers in the healthcare facilities can make these decisions, leaving the telco as simply a provider of connectivity with no further role to play. Deliver the right bandwidth with reliable, secure connections and the services and their associated actions become the exclusive preserve of the provider and their partners.

This is not the role that telcos imagined when discussing the IoT but it does look as if the initiative is shifting, once again, to external providers and specialists with domain expertise to define, realise and manage healthcare services and applications. If telcos wish to assert a role, they need to be clearer about what they can offer. It’s time to stop talking about it and to start doing – otherwise, they will play an increasingly junior role to the evolution of future healthcare. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s nothing wrong with providing complex, reliable and scalable networks that meet the needs of providers. Indeed, it’s difficult to achieve this, but the telco industry has been convinced that it has a wider role to play. It would appear that these aspirations are being overtaken by reality.

Of course, there are caveats. We have previously noted how some external providers of services underestimate the complexity of delivering a consistently reliable and assured service in wireless networks (for example, by making assumptions about cell site performance). Telcos have a clear role to play here but the focus is on the connectivity and assurance rather than the services directly.

Yes, networks are difficult but telcos must more clearly articulate what they can offer and how they can tune their networks to support specific applications. They simply cannot assume that other stakeholders will engage with them on the same terms and need to adopt appropriate positioning to support this, rather than trying to lead in areas in which they have little experience. It’s still early but a better role would be to define the network capabilities that applications are likely to need and to focus on these rather than the specific services that eHealth might enable.

Such an approach makes much more sense and has the benefit of being more credible. The problem is that many telcos are terrified of being perceived as bitpipes, but the bitpipes required are becoming more complex – this takes expertise, commitment and long-term investment. The right bitpipe will be a valuable and essential resource and perhaps telcos should be focusing more on this than headline-grabbing services that create chatter at events such as MWC.