• The use of telemedicine has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Start-up Carbon Health is working to make it accessible to underserved communities.
  • Its founder says it has reduced costs by using technology to improve efficiency.
  • His company uses pop-up clinics to deliver treatments and COVID-19 tests; patients can book appointments using a smartphone app.

Will the doctor see you now? In the era of COVID-19, this is no mere academic question – it could be a matter of life and death. But for some, getting to see a doctor has become harder during the pandemic.

As pressure mounts on health services, people who were already struggling to get medical help are at risk of being left behind. Two-fifths of countries have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people, and even in the United States 27.5 million people have no health insurance.

Not only are surgeries and clinics restricting walk-in access for patients as part of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, but many countries were already facing a shortage of qualified doctors even before the pandemic struck.

In Europe, one in three doctors is aged over 55, prompting the World Health Organization to call for an increase in the number of trainee doctors, while the US will face a shortfall of 139,000 physicians by 2033 according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Meanwhile, in response to the pandemic the use of telemedicine – patient/doctor consultations over video links – has surged. In just one month at the start of the crisis, the biggest health provider in the US recorded a 78% drop in in-person visits but a 10,800% increase in video appointments.

It’s a trend that played out elsewhere too. In the UK, for example, “telemedicine before COVID-19 was almost nonexistent,'' Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery at Oxford University told Science Magazine. “During the pandemic, in-person consultations dropped by 90% or more, with virtual visits at least partially filling the gap.”

Improving access

But, as it expands, some of the limitations of telemedicine are being exposed. In many places, there are still not enough clinics to allow everyone who needs physical treatment to receive it. And cost is a barrier, which still stops the least well off from receiving care.

Tech start-up Carbon Health – which features on the World Economic Forum’s innovation crowdsourcing platform, UpLink – is working to solve some of these issues and improve access to healthcare for underserved communities.

One of Carbon Health’s pop-up COVID-19 clinics.
One of Carbon Health’s pop-up COVID-19 clinics.
Image: Carbon Health

As well as using pop-up clinics which take treatment to hard-to-reach sections of society, Carbon Health provides virtual care, bookable through a smartphone app, without costly membership fees. Patients simply pay for the treatment they receive.

Mobile and pop-up clinics have been particularly effective in delivering COVID-19 testing with more than 100,000 people tested so far by Carbon Health. Follow-up tele-consultations mean patients whose symptoms are not severe can have the reassurance of access to clinicians.

Healthcare ‘deserts’

Now Carbon Health, which recently completed a $100 million funding round, wants to roll out this hybrid model across the US. As part of this, it’s planning to open 1,500 new clinics to provide in-person treatment over the next five years.

“One quarter of counties in the United States, even in places like Los Angeles, are health care deserts where it's almost impossible to access care at all,” Carbon Health co-founder and CEO Eren Bali told Yahoo Finance.

“So during the pandemic, we developed a new model where, when there's not enough density for a full-size clinic, we put a pop-up location where the nursing staff are available in person, but the doctor is available over a video.”

Bali says the key to his low-cost model is cutting out the inefficiencies in traditional medicine. For example, Carbon Health uses artificial intelligence to estimate the length of each appointment to allow doctors to spend more time with patients.

“We have created something patients love,” he tells the World Economic Forum. “It is extremely high quality but it’s something that the average person can easily afford in the United States.”

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

The power of partnerships

Healthcare is changing as patients increasingly expect care to be provided where they need it, and the pandemic has accelerated that need. “I urge all governments to look for partnerships with technology companies to help increase healthcare access,” Bali adds.

Percentage of patient appointments conducted via telemedicine before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic as of April, 2020
Telemedicine has risen dramatically after COVID-19.
Image: Statista

Telemedicine providers in the US need to navigate what CNBC describes as “a complex patchwork of state and federal laws.” But a survey of healthcare professionals in the country found they expect up to a fifth of all appointments to be by telemedicine when the pandemic is over.

Following its expansion during the pandemic, the American Telemedicine Association wants the law changed to make it permanently available to all.

To learn more about Carbon Health and other companies working to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, visit the UpLink platform.