For many years now telemedicine has been touted as the trend that is set to revolutionize the way healthcare is delivered, yet up until now, it has not lived up to the hype.
Despite convincing arguments about how it will provide greater access to people living in remote locations, enable patients suffering from chronic diseases to receive regular and continuous care, drive down medical costs, and more, telemedicine has exhibited relatively low adoption rates in the past. According to a study conducted by Civic Science back in 2019, only 8% of surveyed American adults had ever had a virtual consultation. Many factors can account for this limited traction; the need for appropriate infrastructure, unfavorable regulatory frameworks (leading to poor coverage and reimbursement of remote consultations) and lack of awareness among the public are a few good reasons. But trust and human factors are just as important if we want to understand the whole picture.
Many patients find it hard to reconcile the very concept of telemedicine with their idea of what stands for good medical care (after all, how are you supposed to get physical exam – if you can’t get physical?). In addition, many doctors are reluctant to provide such services for similar reasons. “In the medical health service where I work, they have been encouraging us to do telemedicine for the last year. I firmly refused. It was not what I was trained for, it was too technical, too far removed from the patients,” says Dr Daliah More, a General Practitioner in Israel for almost 3 decades.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, everyone wants to do telemedicine. International and national bodies (such as regulators) are becoming its prime advocates: the CDC and the WHO, for instance, have started encouraging its use to monitor patients and reduce the risks of spreading the virus. Dozens of digital health companies that did not previously offer telemedicine raced to add it to their offerings.
Traction is building amongst patients as well – with March teleconsultations surging 50%, according to Frost and Sullivan. Existing telemedicine companies have been overwhelmed by excess demand. Teladoc, a market leader, now provides 20,000 virtual visits per day, twice as much as its daily activity just before the pandemic kicked in.
Tens of thousands of doctors have responded by starting to offer remote visits, despite widespread initial reluctance. “I have learned a lot about medicine in the past few month,” says Dr More. “I have learned that helping others in the family medicine setting is like any other relationship. If we built trust, caring, understanding and empathy over the years, then moving from a real setting to a virtual setting is possible and realistic.”
Will this growth in telemedicine stick once the pandemic subsides? Dr. Jacques Guedj, a General Practitioner and Pediatrician from France with 26 years of experience expects video consultations to replace 50% of his traditional office visits. We know that COVID-19 has significantly changed patient attitudes towards remotely delivered care. The study by Civic Science showed that, by the end of March 2020, 17% of surveyed people had had a telemedicine consultation and 30% were interested to trying it when the need arises; a huge increase compared to the situation late last year. Another review, conducted by Software Advice, found that 84% of American patients will now factor telemedicine offerings when selecting their healthcare provider.
Yet there is a consensus that some key elements are still missing to facilitate the widespread adoption of telemedicine and guarantee its efficiency. First, its success is conditional on the introduction of more favorable regulatory and technical frameworks. For instance, remote consultations must be seamlessly and widely reimbursed, and patient data must be integrated into standard EMRs and processes.
But telemedicine can only succeed if doctors are given the right tools to diagnose their patients remotely. “I need smart medical devices,” says Dr Guedj. “if I can’t physically examine my patient, then I will need to rely on connected stethoscopes, otoscopes, spirometers, pulse oximeters and ECG monitors, designed for home use that will do the job for me.”
Good news for Dr Guedj: digital health startups and established companies alike are racing to tackle this need; with many user-friendly medically accurate solutions already available on the market. In the world of digital health, it seems that the possibilities are endless.