Technology had already become indispensable in the healthcare sector prior to 2020. But telehealth had limited utilization because of the associated hurdles. However, this changed rapidly in 2020 as healthcare across the globe battled the novel coronavirus. The overburdened healthcare facilities had to revisit their entire healthcare delivery infrastructure. Telehealth emerged as a necessity for hospitals dealing with a high influx of COVID-19 patients and trying to avoid exposing their staff and other patients.
No one could have anticipated such widespread adoption of telehealth practices, which were barely recognized just a decade ago. But now, telehealth and telemedicine are here to stay beyond the ongoing pandemic. Global Market Insights, Inc. has estimated the market size of telemedicine to cross 175 billion USD in the next five years. Now is the right time for healthcare organizations to invest in technologies and strategize to enable a consistent experience on-site and virtually.
The evolution of telehealth over the years
Telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably. But they differ in that telemedicine refers to remote provisioning of clinical services, while telehealth may also refer to long-distance healthcare education, awareness programs, and other non-clinical services. Although telehealth has gained traction just recently, the concept has been around for a few decades. NASA, along with the Indian Health Services, initiated the project STARPAHC (Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care) in the 1960s. Under the project, healthcare was provisioned remotely to the natives on Papago Reservation, with limited access to healthcare, just as it was delivered to NASA’s astronauts in space. The success of this project paved the way for the sophisticated telehealth solutions of today.
The prevalence of internet connection and mobile devices has further enabled the expansion of telehealth and telemedicine. Patients can connect with their providers through handheld devices from practically any part of the world. Wearable devices have also allowed doctors and physicians to record and monitor the patient’s vital signs and other stats remotely. Telehealth has come a far way and is continuously evolving to become more feasible, accessible and similar in experience to in-person visits.
For now, the challenges may outweigh the convenience.
Providers and patients can both benefit from telehealth and telemedicine. Beyond providing healthcare to remote areas with a lack of medical facilities or specialists, telehealth can enable healthcare providers from different locations to collaborate on complicated cases by exchanging patient data and sharing their expertise in real-time. Remote monitoring and report analysis can cut time and costs for both patients and doctors by eliminating the need for multiple follow-up visits. Non-critical patients can also consult with their providers through various channels to reduce the burden on the ER.
But there’s a lot to be done before telehealth could be leveraged to its maximum potential. The task of setting up a telehealth platform that integrates well with the existing IT infrastructure could be too expensive for a smaller practice. Affordable technologies like Skype and Zoom may not be in compliance with the HIPAA regulations, forcing providers to invest in dedicated telehealth and telemedicine solutions. Providing adequate bandwidth and technical support for virtual appointments is also an added cost.
Getting access to a reliable internet connection is even more challenging for patients from rural areas. The elderly population can benefit the most from telehealth by reducing their risk of exposure. But at the same time, they seem to be the most reluctant to adopt remote consultations because of their unfamiliarity with technology. Insurance can also be tricky for both patients and providers practicing telemedicine. Patients need to ensure that their insurance covers virtual appointments, while providers must confirm that their liability insurance covers telemedicine as well. More often than not, insurance premiums are much higher for telemedicine.
Technologically, telehealth and telemedicine still have a long way to go. Not everyone has at-home equipment for taking vital signs. There are limitations to physical evaluation and conducting laboratory tests. Besides, doctors and the paramedic staff cannot provide emergency life-saving care, such as performing CPR through telehealth platforms.
Is telehealth worth it?
Telehealth cannot replace in-person healthcare services anytime soon. Still, it has the potential to transform how people seek ongoing care for chronic or non-urgent conditions that do not require lab tests and in-person examinations. It is a great alternative for people with anxiety or those who are immuno-compromised. Those living far away from medical facilities can opt for a quick consultation through telemedicine in times of need. Healthcare experts can conveniently conduct health awareness programs and workshops in remote areas as well.
Platforms like Updox, Vsee and Zoom for healthcare are HIPAA compliant and allow healthcare professionals to leverage telecommunication securely and reliably. Then there are platforms like Amwell, Teladoc, MDLive and Doctor on Demand that are making telemedicine convenient and accessible. Through these platforms, patients have access to thousands of licensed professionals at affordable rates, without waiting for days and weeks to get an appointment. Considering the combined efforts of the government, healthcare facilities and telehealth software providers, telehealth may come at par with conventional healthcare in most cases very soon.