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As more and more people turn to telehealth services for care, it is becoming increasingly important for physicians and the entire healthcare industry to have access to technology that can help improve patient care. Luckily, artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly emerging as a powerful tool that can do just that.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being increasingly used in telemedicine to allow doctors to make more data-driven, real-time decisions that may improve the patient experience and health outcomes by allowing them to work more toward virtual care alternatives throughout the care continuum.

According to a study from MIT, 75% of healthcare facilities that utilized AI reported improved capacity to manage illnesses, and 4/5 said it aided in reducing employee fatigue. AI in healthcare is a promising strategy for the future of medical delivery, given that Covid-19 places a strain on both industries--the amount of patient data analysis, and the number of people who need medical attention.

Before the pandemic, Amy Hu, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Health and a UArizona College of Medicine Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, had not utilized telemedicine to see her patients. She says she viewed it as more of a niche application for other healthcare providers.

“I did have some misconceptions about what telehealth was like. I thought that patients may not feel as engaged or connected, or that it might feel a little unnatural compared to meeting in-person.”

However, with the COVID-19 shutdowns in March 2020, the shift to telemedicine was swift. “Our clinic went from seeing all patients in-person to exclusively telehealth almost overnight. Everyone had to adapt pretty quickly.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a steady rise in telehealth use. By way of example; March 2020 saw telehealth visits increase by 154% compared to March 2019! While more recently, telehealth usage has decreased from all-time highs, it remains a convenient, and sometimes necessary option, particularly in rural communities where access to health care and public transportation may be limited. Even as telehealth presents an attractive option, a digital divide exists, particularly in rural communities, with Pew Research indicating nearly one-in-three households lack broadband access. With many communities possessing both a demonstrated need for telehealth, and persistent barriers to access, libraries stand poised to help.

Dr. Tamsen Bassford is a physician who treats neurotypical patients, as well as patients with disabilities,  Photo Courtesy: University of Arizona College of Medicine Tucson , Family & Community Medicine

People living with disabilities face poorer overall health outcomes than their peers without disabilities. Could accessible telehealth help?

Dr. Tamsen Bassford, associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and a member of the University of Arizona College of Medicine - Tucson Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities, says many of her patients were severely impacted during times of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when shutdowns and social distancing were in place.

“Many of my patients with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD) were restricted; they couldn’t go to work or go to their daytime activities – they were at home. They didn’t have access to things that made their days meaningful. Many patients had less access than neurotypical people have to online resources,” Dr. Bassford said.

My upbringing

I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in midtown Tucson. Throughout grade school, I eagerly watched as families slowly made their way out of the complex as if it were a graduation to the next social rung. After a decade of factory work, often managing three jobs, my mother saved enough for our little family to graduate, too. The dedication and perseverance I witnessed in her inspired me to become the first in my family to graduate from college.

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