One of the many fast-growing trends in the healthcare industry is telehealth.
It's putting healthcare providers in direct contact with patients through the Internet and telephone, saving time and money, and prioritizing patient well-being and convenience without compromising positive health outcomes.
The innovation of telehealth consultations has myriad benefits across the healthcare industry, including, but not limited to, reduced wait times, reduced stress on hospitals, cost-saving, and increased patient engagement, resulting in healthier patients due to greater accessibility to healthcare via the Internet and telephone.
One of the most significant woes of any healthcare system is a lack of access to care. Whether that’s because of the location in which you live, that you require specialist support, or simply the overall strain on the system, healthcare access in the country leaves much to be desired. Telehealth has dramatically improved the accessibility of various healthcare services to people living in remote communities or communities where certain services might not be available.
Telehealth can include access to doctor’s notes or a medical certificate online via the internet or even obtaining a prescription online, a massive benefit to those without the ability to quickly go to their nearest pharmacy. The expansion of telehealth has allowed healthcare to go further and provide more care to more people without overcrowding emergency departments and hospitals nationwide.
Telehealth technology has gone far beyond your traditional phone call with your doctor or nurse practitioner. Telehealth technology is revolutionizing how virtual healthcare is delivered, from video conferencing platforms allowing healthcare professionals to make examinations, to mobile health apps like PillMinder, AppleFitness, meditation, period tracking apps, and many more.
These applications give patients immediate access to their health information and track their health over time. Suppose they’re working towards specific health goals or are following new health directives from their doctor. Some applications also allow for access to patient records remotely.
Other critical remote-access health applications include remotely-monitored devices like pacemakers and all alert bracelets. Telehealth has also vastly improved access to services such as pharmacologists, mental health support, and other specialists in underserved communities. Telehealth bridges the gap between the primary healthcare system of hospitals and specialist units and patients with easy access to that system.
While telehealth is a fantastic method of providing supplementary healthcare to patients, it comes with risks. It requires legal oversights almost as stringently, if not more so, than traditional healthcare delivery mechanisms.
In many American states, licensing regulations require that the doctor, nurse practitioner, or other healthcare provider hold licensure in the state where the patient is located. In most situations, doctors, nurses, and their patients live in the same state despite using telehealth as their method of healthcare delivery.
Other regulatory considerations include sharing personal information on online platforms and applications like Apple Fitness, PillMinder, and other apps that gather and store patient data.
In the United States, this personal health information is governed by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Similar frameworks exist elsewhere.
One of the main goals of telehealth is to empower patients with better access to better quality healthcare, regardless of their living circumstances. As a health-delivery mechanism, it also reduces the strain on emergency departments and hospitals, which as a happy byproduct, also increases the likelihood of positive health outcomes for those using the hospitals.
According to a 2021 survey of some 3000 telehealth users in the United States, 86% of respondents had positive experiences with telehealth. Unfortunately, the delivery systems for many telehealth services require a high-speed internet connection. Only 36% of survey respondents without high-speed internet could use telehealth effectively.
While telehealth may lack the ‘hands-on’ nature of hospitals and in-person doctors' appointments, it provides a much-needed bridge to the gap between healthcare delivery to poor and underserved communities or those without easy access to a hospital or walk-in clinic. According to an American Medical Association Survey, 62% of respondents were satisfied with the quality of care provided by telehealth professionals.
Telehealth may well be the way of the future, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for evolution and addressing some of the challenges made evident by its implementation. Some of these challenges include:
As we’ve addressed earlier, specific locations where telehealth is used as a primary delivery mechanism may experience internet connectivity problems, severely inhibiting or stopping healthcare from reaching the intended patient. No internet? No videoconferencing, health record access (if files are stored in a cloud-based server), monitoring capabilities, etc.
Specific demographics may encounter barriers when using telehealth applications or computer-based software. For example, the elderly person may struggle to download, install and regularly sign into Zoom or other videoconferencing software.
Other demographics that may encounter technological barriers include those with cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, and those on a low-income spectrum who can’t buy laptops, computers, or webcams or have access to libraries where free access to the necessary technology is available.
One of the main areas in which telehealth has improved the healthcare landscape is specialized fields like mental health support utilizing counselors via videoconferencing. Other specialized fields in which telehealth can be effective include telecardiology, including remote monitoring of heart monitors, pacemakers, and remote monitoring of patients with chronic heart disease.
Teledermatology is one of the leading success stories in telehealth. As a mostly visual specialty, teledermatology is ideally suited to the impersonal nature of telecare. In a field where time is of the essence, a four-plus week wait for a dermatologist appointment (in-person) is eliminated by providing dermatological appointments via videoconference.
Many specialist applications for telehealth make life easier for patients that require specialist care. Telehealth is expanding its access and improving patient outcomes on a long-term basis.
Finally, let’s look into telehealth initiatives around the world. We should begin by saying that telehealth and its partner services require access to the Internet, in many cases, to function optimally. Due to the lack of internet coverage in many developing nations, the efficacy of telehealth implementation may be challenging to ascertain.
However, certain countries in various regions are doing very well with their relatively-new telemedicine infrastructure. Singapore, in 2020, had 11 different telemedicine start-up companies. This number has increased post-COVID-19.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan is one of the leading players in the telemedicine game, including consultations with other doctors via videoconference from an ER doctor. The Ministry of Health of Kazakhstan and the WHO have proposed that the Kazakh model be utilized across the continent as a model for countries with a large area but low population density.
In South America, Brazil has the world's largest telehealth telemedicine network, with over 120 universities and hospitals connected via a vast network connecting healthcare providers and patients nationwide.
While telehealth is far from being ‘new,’ the Coronavirus pandemic necessitated expanding and implementing such programs far more rapidly than optimal in Europe and North America. In Canada and the United States, the various provinces and states regulate and roll out their own versions of telemedicine through provincial and state government portals.
Telemedicine is here to stay and will continue to evolve and improve patient outcomes as time goes on. Telehealth does a marvelous of bridging the gap between emergency rooms and hospitals worldwide while providing quality care for non-emergent health matters.
It needs more infrastructure to support it on a larger scale. However, that will likely come in due course as the global healthcare infrastructure continues to be strained by overflowing ERs and underfunded and understaffed hospitals.
Luke Fitzpatrick has been published in Forbes, Yahoo! News and Influencive. He is also a guest lecturer at the University of Sydney, lecturing in Cross-Cultural Management and the Pre-MBA Program. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.