The value of telemedicine technology has been thrown into ever-sharper focus by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The requirement for ongoing, quality healthcare provision – at a time of long waiting lists, chronic cancellations and enforced social distancing designed to limit the spread of coronavirus – instigated a change in medical professional-patient interaction and how public health is managed.
Siemens Healthineers, who specialise in global telehealth solutions, share their findings on the present and future status of telehealth:
- An estimated 20% of emergency room visits, and 24% of office and outpatient visits could be shifted to virtual care delivery.
- 64% of physicians view telehealth more favourably now than before the pandemic.
- 76% of consumers are now interested in using telehealth.
- 50% of executives believe a quarter of outpatient, preventative, and long-term care could become virtual by 2040.
- Studies have indicated that virtual services could lead to approximately $250 billion in expenditure.
Telehealth has transformed the patient journey for many, but what exactly does it involve, and what are its benefits and limitations?
Telemedicine, also known as telehealth, is the provision of remote clinical services and consultations – a two-way, real-time form of communication between healthcare practitioners and patients. A branch of e-health, it relies on audio-visual telecommunications technologies such as phone calls and video conferencing.
In the instance of primary care, telemedicine generally consists of phone conversations where patients can seek the advice of doctors regarding non-emergency issues where in-person visits aren’t necessary. It’s important to note that telemedicine is intended to complement face-to-face care, not replace it. Typically, all that is required is for a healthcare professional to have a webcam and access to a telecommunications hub by which data can be easily and quickly uploaded for storage.
As a healthcare practice, it’s proved particularly valuable in treating patients with long-term, chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. For these types of health conditions, where urgent care isn’t required but ongoing support, intervention, regimen and prescription adjustments are necessary, telemedicine offers a quick and straightforward alternative to physical visits.
Telemedicine is a convenient, safe and cost-effective way to navigate an ever-changing healthcare environment – ultimately, it offers a reliable substitute where in-person care cannot be performed. It’s also a valuable method of providing essential medical and health services to patients in rural areas which, as well as presenting logistical issues, often suffer a shortage of skilled healthcare professionals.
During the pandemic, healthcare providers who adopted telemedicine for remote patient monitoring and patient care experienced a reduction in practitioner burnout and exposure, greater workforce sustainability, reduced need for PPE and sanitisation, and an ability to provide ongoing care to patients who may have otherwise been forced to wait for care.
More widely, telemedicine has helped to transform various aspects of healthcare. Examples of this include:
- Reduced wait times, greater flexibility and greater adherence to treatments for patients
- The requirement for minimal infrastructure, aside from cybersecurity technology for the protection of patient data
- Increased collaboration between various medical disciplines
- Easier follow-ups for blood tests, laboratory investigations and monitoring of vital signs
- Relief of congested medical services and healthcare facilities
- The increased physical and mental well-being of primary care physicians, clinicians, caregivers and other healthcare personnel
- More efficient allocation of healthcare resources, leading to cost savings
- Support of patients whose needs go beyond convenience, such as those with impaired hearing, vision or mobility
- Ease of storage of patient health data and health information, including store-and-forward techniques
- Improved patient experience and health outcomes
- Opportunities for health systems to expand their catchment areas and patient base
There are, of course, limitations. While clear benefits have been documented across certain disciplines – including teleradiology, and telemental health – such as psychiatry, teledermatology, home telecare, and telecardiology – telemedicine and remote consultations are not suitable for all types of clinical care.
Common examples include surgical cases, gynaecology, and acute ophthalmology, where an examination is critical. Additionally, access to connectivity, logistics, infrastructure and skill set can vary considerably from region to region, with telemedicine experiencing more success in some areas than others.
Early on into the pandemic, Dr Brian Charles, an emergency physician based in Barbados, advised that telemedicine across the region, where adapting to a new culture of medical intervention without personal interaction was required, would take some adjustment. He noted that the Caribbean population is “very sociable, and person-to-person contact is revered. This includes the doctor’s visit.” Where telemedicine had been used previously, it was generally limited to telephone triaging services. Now, however, most have access to the technology and devices required for video call consultations, which satisfy many of the same requirements and safeguards as a face-to-face appointment.
Telehealth is gradually becoming more mainstream. Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Barbados-based MedRegis, Dale Trotman, believes that healthcare must evolve – and that its evolution must be digital. His organisation seeks to revolutionise how medical data and medical records are documented, stored and shared. These new technologies are taking root, and Trotman is passionate about prioritising their use across the Caribbean, citing that “island nations have great healthcare but access to care [can be] a challenge because of limitations of infrastructure and natural, geographical reasons.” In time, connecting more patients with healthcare providers will become more widespread, leading to significant advances in healthcare provision, intervention, and public health outcomes.
The need for this form of healthcare provision is clear, both in the short term and looking to the future. Telehealth trends point to a more decentralised, hybridised healthcare system of the future, where larger providers will be able to offer a greater variety of services in more locations, as well as some which operate entirely remotely. The hope is that this will reduce cost barriers to healthcare, increase access to care, and generate better patient outcomes.
Are you interested in how telehealth and artificial intelligence can improve healthcare delivery?
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