Jonathan Baker-McBride, corporate manager for telehealth at Orlando Health, speaking at a ULI Central Florida event.

With America’s aging population and a wave of urgent care centers popping up in recent years, medical office space has been one of the safer bets for real estate investors and landlords in many markets.

But the sector is far from immune to disruption. Telepresence robots are beginning to appear in intensive-care wards and patients increasingly get access to doctors by phone, mobile app, or computer. The rise of “telehealth” could further shrink or shift traditional office space demand, according to a speaker at ULI Central Florida’s Real Estate Trends 360° Conference, held at the new Harriet’s Orlando Ballet Centre north of downtown Orlando.

“It used to be home visits; then doctors went to the office model; then they partnered with a health care system,” said Jonathan Baker-McBride, corporate manager for telehealth at Orlando Health, a hospital network based in Orlando. “Telehealth is going to be that next step that urgent care can’t fill.”

At the intensive care unit of Orlando Health, a robot already travels the floor. It makes up for its lack of bedside manner by providing remote access to surgeons and medical professionals on a video monitor. With another physician at hand, those medical specialists converse with patients and check their vital signs. 

Insurance companies and medical providers routinely address symptoms such as rashes and conjunctivitis (pink eye) with video portals that link patients at home with doctors and nurses.

Looking ahead, stroke victims may go to emergency rooms and get access to remote cardiologists in the middle of the night instead of being monitored by the physician on call. Convalescing patients may discuss their recovery remotely instead of making a trip to the physician’s office. At annual exams, patients could confer not only with a primary-care physician, but also with the specialists who have treated them.

Speaking to an audience of about 300, Baker-McBride said 10,000 virtual visits are expected this year through the Orlando Health system, up from 6,500 two year ago. Globally, the telehealth market is projected to grow at a rate of 15 percent and reach $53 billion market by 2026, according to Acumen Research and Consulting.

For the real estate industry, the new technologies have the potential to open opportunities in some passed-over places. Rural areas and underserved communities could become more attractive. Residential developments too small to justify an array of medical specialists might still want a facility where residents can connect with those experts for at least a few days a week, Baker-McBride said.

Bill Moss, director of the Dr. P. Phillips Institute for Research and Education in Real Estate at the University of Central Florida, said this next generation of health care is an emerging field.

“It is certainly a logical path to be on to include that kind of technology in the world of health care,” said Moss, a former senior managing director for CBRE.