WebRTC Fuels Surge in Telehealth Services

WebRTC’s ability to enable video chat in a browser without the hurdle of a download is spurring new use cases across several industries. One of the most promising is the health care industry.

Every week, it sees, a new telehealth service pops up in this space. Most of these services come with the promise to deliver more efficient care by connecting physicians and patients through video. Video consultations are especially relevant in three scenarios:

  • when patients need an initial assessment in the case of an emergency;
  • for follow up consultations that do not require a visit to the office; and
  • when patients want medical advice on an ad-hoc basis such as to ask questions regarding a prescription.

These improvements in the delivery of health care come at a timely point. The roll out of the Affordable Care Act promises to expand the health care benefits being offered to the 55 million Americans with no health coverage, as well as millions more who are underinsured. One of the potential outcomes of this landmark legislation is that it could potentially cause a shortage of doctors in the United States.

“As the demand for adult primary care explodes,” health care experts Thomas Bodenheimer and Mark Smith wrote in the November issue of Health Affairs, “the capacity to provide that care is shrinking.”

Part of the plan to overcome this looming threat is to give priority to the quality of the care provided rather than the volume. Doctors and hospitals are accountable to align with these new key performance indicators. Telehealth helps them provide more cost-effective care. The market opportunity is significant for telehealth providers. According to a new report from IHS (News - Alert), the telehealth market will grow eightfold in the U.S over the next five years, from about $240 million this year to $1.9 billion in 2018.

Videoconferencing has been used for some time by health care providers. However, until recently, it was mainly restricted to internal collaboration between members of the medical staff. It is now being opened to patients, as laws and regulations drive an increasing demand for telehealth, and WebRTC allows application developers to build new telehealth services.

However, there are several factors to consider when leveraging WebRTC to build a telehealth app. Delivering video on mobile apps and complying with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act are the main roadblocks that often arise.

Are WebRTC-powered telehealth services HIPAA compliant?

HIPAA intends to protect individually identifiable health information. As defined by HIPAA, there are two types of entities that must comply with the rules: the covered entities and the business associates. Covered entities are the health care providers and insurances companies that maintain Protected Health Information. Business associates are a person or organization that conducts business with the covered entity that involves the use or disclosure of individually identifiable health information. In other words, telehealth apps that access PHI are considered as business associates, and so they must be HIPAA compliant.

However, a company that only transmits the data without having access to that information is not considered as a business associate. This scenario has been defined as the Conduit Exception. For instance, the postal service, UPS, or private couriers are companies that act as a conduit for PHI. In the case of a video consultation, companies that only transmit the encrypted PHI and never have access to the encryption key also benefit from the Conduit Exception. By encrypting media streams with 128-bit AES, WebRTC addresses these two requirements so the use of WebRTC does not create additional constraints for a telehealth service to be HIPAA compliant. However, in the case where a video chat session is stored, the telehealth service must ensure the storage is implemented following HIPPA rules.

Eliminating the barriers to deliver WebRTC on mobile

WebRTC significantly lowers the barriers to adoption from a user standpoint. As long as doctors and patients use a browser supporting WebRTC, they can establish a video chat session in a single click with no download required. This convenience of use is one of two core factors that will drive the adoption of telehealth services.

The other factor is mobile. Tablets and smartphones are the devices on which patients expect their digital experiences to be delivered on. Today, a telehealth service that wants to embed video chat into a native mobile app can do it by relying on a WebRTC platform such as Weemo. This is how MediSprout (disclaimer: MediSprout uses Weemo for its telehealth solution) provides both a web and a native telehealth experience.

The market is ready for adoption. According to a global study released last December by Intel (News - Alert) Corp., 72 percent of respondents said that they would willingly see a physician via videoconferencing for non-urgent appointments. Third-party WebRTC platforms exist to remedy the technological and HIPPA challenges developers and providers currently face. And companies like MediSprout have shown that knocking down these barriers allows them to focus on what matters most: the experience.

Thomas Cottereau is founder and CEO at Weemo ( 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi