Within the last several years, telehealth — the management and distribution of health-related services via telecommunication technology — has slowly made itself known. And the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted it to the front of the line, when we didn’t have many other safe options. Out of necessity, we turned to text, phone calls, and video calls to handle matters that used to be managed with in-office appointments.
This blog will explore what telemedicine has looked like in the past, how coronavirus has changed the landscape, and what we might be able to expect for the future.
Telemedicine of the Past: Success or Flop?
While it might be hard to imagine this today, in the past, telehealth wasn’t always so pervasive. 2017 research revealed that even with the medical industry’s significant investment in telemedicine, roughly eight out of 10 consumers (82%) still weren’t onboard — unsure of how to access it, use it, and whether or not their insurance would cover it.
Some of those surveyed who did use it expressed satisfaction with the overall experience, including the convenience, shorter wait times, less travel, and overall cost and time savings. However, the numbers are still underwhelming.
Furthermore, the industry is being met with some friction on the providers’ side, as well. The study showed that reimbursement, program costs, and clinician resistance were proving to be barriers. Security, accessibility, availability, and technical concerns have also been a part of the conversation, as well as quality and confidentiality.
So, while there’s indeed a powerful push behind telemedicine, implementing it — and getting everyone behind it — might be easier said than done, understandably. It’s a totally new way of communicating, treating patients, and managing health matters, which means there’s naturally going to be a learning curve.
However, coronavirus gave us a rather abrupt push into a new way of communicating, leaving us with far fewer options and thus needing to rely on telehealth to connect medical professionals with their patients.
Coronavirus: A Turning Point for Telemedicine
It’s felt as though the world has come to a screeching halt; and in a sense, it has. However, telehealth is pushing forward with brute force.
If there wasn’t a big enough push for telehealth before, the tides are likely changing. With coronavirus and social distancing, telehealth interactions could reach one billion by the end of 2020, according to analysts.
In March, when the virus started to really gain traction, telehealth visits jumped by 50%. And while these visits were initially projected to hit 36 million for 2020, that number has now skyrocketed to 200 million.
Telehealth is even playing a role in treating individuals who are exhibiting signs of coronavirus or have been diagnosed with the virus. In an attempt to contain the virus, manage hospital traffic, and keep people quarantined, some medical professionals have turned to monitoring their patients via telemedicine, especially those who are asymptomatic or are experiencing mild (and not severe) symptoms.
It likely goes without saying that coronavirus has ushered in a new normal. And while nobody can know with certainty what the future holds, we can speculate: Is telemedicine here to stay, or will we fight for a return to in-person health management?
The Future of Telehealth
With a coronavirus vaccine hopefully on the horizon and much of 2020 lost to a pandemic that so many underestimated, the world is waiting on the edge of its seat for things to return to “normal.” Whether or not that’s a reasonable expectation is another conversation entirely.
As for telehealth, is it here to stay?
Some can reasonably argue that telemedicine is experiencing a bubble. And once the dust from COVID-19 settles, that bubble will burst. Normal circumstances and conditions might not allow for it to have that great of a presence…
… However, as we’ve discussed, we don’t yet know what “normal” is going to look like post-COVID.
We live in a digital age, where ease and convenience reign supreme. It’s likely that many patients will continue to opt for telehealth appointments when available. One less car trip. Avoiding the dreaded waiting room delay. Speaking to your provider from the comfort of your own home. Those things right there are enough for millions of people to hop on the telemedicine bandwagon.
However, there will undoubtedly be those individuals who prefer in-person visits, face-to-face communication, and hands-on treatment.
Importantly, though, is this: Coronavirus has demonstrated that receiving medical care digitally is feasible. If it’s going to continue, however, conditions will need to improve.
Ease of Use
If you want more physicians and patients to rely on telehealth, then it needs to be as seamless, smooth, and easy to navigate as an in-person visit. Digital platforms need to be user-friendly on both ends. Otherwise, it largely defeats the purpose of going digital.
The provider needs to be able to swiftly move from patient to patient, able to quickly access their medical records and arrive at virtual meetings on time and prepared.
Privacy and Security
Privacy is a huge reason why people are already hesitant to use social media. In terms of telehealth, imagine that tenfold. We’re talking about people discussing their private health concerns over virtual lines. There is no room for error.
Platforms need to take a proactive, preventative approach to security issues, stopping them before they even start. Neither patient nor provider can experience a breach of privacy.
Audio and Video Quality
Telehealth portals will have a bit of a hurdle to overcome in providing a high-quality service across a wide variety of devices. Online visits cannot be interrupted by lags, frozen screens, or choppy audio. Telehealth will need to be accessible to people even in remote regions, regardless of their device or carrier.
Generally speaking, one of the perks of going digital is a lower overhead and being able to do things more affordably. For example, the patient saves money because they don’t have to get in their car and drive.
The provider saves money because they don’t have the expense of treating people in person. They also have the potential to reach more people, faster.
If done properly, telemedicine could change healthcare completely. However, providers and insurance companies will need to pivot accordingly, making it reasonably affordable for all parties involved.
Quality of Patient Service
Very importantly, providers need to be able to give the same quality of care. Of course, there are some things that telehealth simply won’t be able to accomplish. However, providers care about their integrity and reputation and want to continue treating their patients with their utmost care and attention.
Telehealth needs to complement this endeavor, if not find a way to enhance it.
The pandemic changed the way we think about medicine. And even once coronavirus starts sinking into the past, perhaps we’d do well to remember: This wasn’t our first global health crisis, and it won’t be our last. In fact, in just the last 10 years, we’ve faced the ugliness of not just coronavirus but Zika, ebola, and MERS.
The sharp rise in telehealth this year was a direct response of the pandemic. Moving forward, we’d be wise to take a more proactive approach and properly sink our teeth into telemedicine, so that (a) we won’t be caught off-guard in the future, and (b) it’s there for patients and providers who want or need it.