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How telemedicine can close the healthcare gap

(Image credit: Image Credit: Photo_Concepts / iStock)

The Covid-19 pandemic represents the largest global healthcare crisis in modern times - placing an enormous strain on an already over-stretched health service. As medical providers grapple with the repercussions of Covid-19, telemedicine is being increasingly seen as a crucial component in ensuring that patients continue to receive the right medical attention during the Pandemic and beyond.

For nearly three months, most patients have been unable or unwilling to access in-person care from healthcare professionals. Even if patients have been able to get to a doctor’s office or clinic safely, many have wanted to avoid sitting in waiting rooms where there are increased risks of transmitting the infection. But as Health bosses urge patients to ensure they continue to seek the right healthcare advice and keep healthcare appointments, is replacing face-to-face appointments with remote solutions in the form of virtual doctor-patient consultations the solution.

Telemedicine is nothing new, in fact, it has been making its mark on the healthcare community since the 1940’s when the first Radiological images were sent via telephone in 1948. However, Covid-19 has brought telemedicine to the forefront of the health care agenda. The current patient deferral of nonurgent services could lead to a "care debt", with predictions estimating that the NHS waiting list could grow to 10 million by Christmas. To meet these immediate needs and futureproof the health service, health systems should be building out a robust telemedicine infrastructure.

The pandemic has accelerated a shift in consumer behaviour towards digital solutions for personal, work and healthcare communications, recognising the benefits of reduced travel and waiting times, while those in rural areas and vulnerable patients are able to remain away from high risk areas.

Coronavirus bounce

The mandatory lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have forced both schools and business to embrace the use of technology to stay connected. Until now, Healthcare is one of the last bastions that is still relatively untouched by digital technology. The gold standard has always been face-to-face consultation, but now Covid-19 has forced even the most conservative clinicians to give remote healthcare serious consideration.

During the first phase of slowing Covid-19 the health service experienced rapid and extremely radical transformation from in-person care to telehealth. Medical providers around the world have had to quickly pivot and adapt to make certain services digital almost overnight as the surge in demand for telemedicine appointments; video consultation services appointment numbers skyrocketed by 1,451 per cent in March 2020.

Not only do video consultations help to prevent transmission of the disease, they enable both patients and clinicians, including those who are in at-risk groups or who need to self-isolate, to continue with the appointments they need. According to Forrester, in the US alone, virtual healthcare interactions are predicted to surpass one billion by the end of this year 2020, including 900 million visits related to Covid-19, while a 2020 study conducted by Now Healthcare Group estimates that the NHS could save £7.5bn by adopting digital health tools such as telehealth services. A huge saving when health-care spending declined by a massive 18 per cent in the first three months of the year.

From cost and time-savings to greater access to care, telemedicine is part of the solution for bridging the gap between patients and healthcare providers. However, not all doctors and medical professionals have the communication tools they need to conduct virtual appointments with patients in an adequately safe and secure way.

It was widely reported that the NHS’ Attend Anywhere system, failed 3 times in one week in May meaning essential outpatient consultations were delayed while there has also been an alarming surge in the use of social platforms and a number of other unsuitable communication tools used for patient consultations such as Zoom and WhatsApp, which were clearly not designed to be used for this purpose.

Besides simply delivering convenience, telemedicine can provide easy medical access to those who live in rural communities many miles from good health care and for some patients, especially the elderly, who can’t get out of the house.

The impacts of socio-economic issues including poverty and limited housing, in addition to the huge demand for healthcare in these worst hit areas has raised questions about a vicious cycle that is allowing the worst-off to suffer the most. For poorer – many living in urban areas – patients, the pandemic is leaving them particularly exposed. To address this, Viveo Health is offering its secure ‘Virtual Doctors Office’ platform for free to any healthcare professional in the UK and assisting in efforts to keep vulnerable people away from high-risk areas such as doctors' practices and hospitals. Telemedicine is fighting to address the healthcare divide, giving vulnerable patients more options in doctors and access to care without having to travel to high risk places. 

 Improving patient outcomes

It has already been established that keeping people away from hospital has many benefits, not least of which is better clinical outcomes. In one Boston study, elderly patients who were treated at home rather than in hospital in a randomised trial were much less likely to be readmitted to hospital within 30 days.

For many common health problems or follow-up care, an in-office doctor visit may not be needed. Patients could be seen during a televisit by a registered nurse or physician assistant. Medical practice over the internet can result in faster diagnoses and treatments, increase the efficiency of care and reduce patient stress. There is also cost savings. Patients can spend less time travelling and sitting in waiting rooms. Doctors can spend less time in the consultation asking basic questions.

Looking ahead

Although the benefits of telemedicine are clear, to reach its full potential, remote healthcare needs to move beyond just simple, on-screen consultations. If telemedicine is to provide the vital boost required to augment our healthcare system and be a positive, permanent solution for the long term then doctors and healthcare professionals need to be equipped with the right tools.

These platforms need to enhance and aid with virtual appointments and consultations in a secure and compliant environment so that doctors in the private sector particularly can see more patients

each day. From initial contact requests to the finalising of a treatment programme, there are a huge number of benefits to both the clinician and the patient from digitising certain aspects of the healthcare industry. The starkest example of this is the saving of time, with increased efficiency meaning more patients seen and resources deployed elsewhere, ultimately helping to save lives.

The shift from physical consultations to telemedicine will create more opportunities for doctors and medical professionals to expand their client portfolio geographically and take greater control of their working patterns.

The expansion of telemedicine

The incorporation of telemedicine into routine medical care promises to be transformative. Utilising technology that already exists and devices that most people have in their homes, medical practice over the internet can result in faster diagnoses and treatments, increase the efficiency of care and reduce patient stress.

The positive impact of this is enormous, provided there is a shift away from legacy tools to embrace the innovative solutions available today to truly augment the healthcare industry’s workforce and streamline the end-to-end patient journey.

While uncertainties around the future impact of Coronavirus will continue to percolate, what is certain is that the growing revolution in digital healthcare will have an important role to play for the remainder of 2020 and for years to come.

Raul Källo, Founder and CEO, Viveo Health