Telemedicine is the use of digital technologies such as computers, smartphones, and the internet to deliver healthcare services to patients located away from the hospital. Today, technology has become an important tool for addressing the growing healthcare challenges such as limited resources and the number of care providers.
And as the COVID-19 virus spreads and continues to disrupt everything in the entire world, telemedicine has been instrumental in improving access to healthcare services without in-person visits. The technology allows doctors and other healthcare givers to attend to patients remotely via telephone, email, messaging or videoconferencing or other communications channel.
Although the technology has been in use for some time, the COVID-19 virus has accelerated its use over the past few months. In addition to saving costs for the patients and healthcare facilities, it helps to maintain safe social distances hence minimizing risks of infections for patients and hospital staff.
Health facilities adopting telemedicine can serve and remotely monitor more patients, reduce workload at the centers, and limit exposing their staff as well as other patients. This helps in expanding the reach of medical care to other places far from the main facilities at lower costs.
Benefits of Telemedicine
The virtual doctor-patient interaction reduces costs and congestion at hospitals while increasing convenience and enabling more people to access healthcare services. It helps providers and governments to expand healthcare facilities and serve communities in urban, rural, and remote areas while cutting costs, reducing lengthy travel times, and inconveniences.
Some of the benefits include;
- Telemedicine improves the quality of healthcare care and results in lower hospital admission rates and re-admissions.
- Short stay in the hospital, reducing deaths and medical-related financial burdens for families.
- Lower healthcare costs – reduced care and transport since patients can receive treatment at home.
- Enhancing the traditional face to face consultations
- Improved revenue since technology allows the provider to attend to many patients.
Reducing healthcare costs
Although telemedicine is not a new concept, it is only recently, with the outbreak of COVID-19, that it has gained more popularity. Today, more people are willing to use the technology as opposed to visiting the physical healthcare facilities.
Using telemedicine saves money for the healthcare providers, insurance companies, patients, and employers for some who are employed. For example, the workers will spend less time away from the workplaces which they would otherwise have used traveling to and from the facility.
For patients, it eliminates the need to travel for long hours as well as the associated costs such as accommodation and other expenses.
Prioritizing emergency cases
The doctor can talk to the first responders in the field and get to understand the condition of the patients. By determining the state or health condition of the patients before they come to a facility, the providers can prioritize and ensures that those with critical conditions will receive urgent and right attention immediately they arrive at the hospital. This will also ensure that those who do not need hospital care are directed to the correct places or advised to receive treatment at home.
Telemedicine encourages more access to healthcare
The ease of accessing doctors and other services means that more people will seek medical care early before they get serious health problems that would otherwise require specialized treatment including emergency care.
Most people who lack time or money to visit the hospital facilities will find it easier and convenient to access the services which are usually less costly.
Reduce congestion, infection risks and running costs of facilities
The telemedicine essentially minimizes the number of people visiting the hospitals hence reducing congestion and risks of infections. Since a large number of people will not physically visit the hospitals, the provider will reduce the space requirements, amount of cleaning, disinfecting, and other logistical issues, hence reduce the cost of running the facility.
Telemedicine reduces the pressure on health facilities
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has seen the healthcare providers struggling to attend to those invested with the virus in addition to the other patients with other urgent different medical issues.
Although COVID-19 requires in-person testing, telemedicine can help the healthcare providers to make initial consultations hence establish if the patients need further in-person treatment or not. Consequently, this relieves the pressure on the already stretched medical facilities, emergency rooms, and medical providers.
Reduce risks to medical staff
It also enables providers to evaluate a patient and know their conditions before they arrive at the healthcare facilities. Also, the fact that it reduces physical exposure helps to minimize the risks to both the healthcare workers and patients suffering from other ailments.
Doctors can screen the patient at home to determine if they have coronavirus that requires treatment at the facility or whether they have other ailments that can be treated at home.
Quarantined medical personnel can attend to patients
Since medical care workers are more exposed in the course of duty especially when attending to COVID-19 patients, they are also at high risk of getting infected. In case this happens, they will have to go to quarantine or isolation until they recover fully.
With telemedicine, doctors and medical caregivers in quarantine can continue attending to the patients remotely without physical contact, hence maintaining a safe distance.
Reduce exposure to the COVID-19 and other viruses
COVID-19 is more dangerous for people suffering from other health conditions or those with low immunity. And using virtual consultations allows the doctors to offer medical assistance to these patients at home hence preventing them from visiting the facilities where they are at risk of coronavirus exposure.
Challenges of Telemedicine
Despite the many benefits that telemedicine offers, it also has some drawbacks. These include;
Lack of testing limitations
For some diseases, such as COVID-19, which requires a lot of testing, telemedicine alone may not be reliable in some cases, and especially those that require hospitalization. Moving forward, there is a need to enhance it by establishing local testing centers to diagnose and determine patients that require in-patient care
Delays for patients requiring emergency care
It is not possible to provide lifesaving services remotely for the patients requiring emergency care. This can delay the care especially if the patients need to first access the telemedicine platform and then be given the go-ahead to proceed to the facility as opposed to physically going to the facility initially.
Telemedicine Data Privacy and security concerns
For a long time, healthcare data has been one of the most attractive targets for cybercriminals, and the adoption of telemedicine increases the attack surface and vulnerabilities.
This makes ensuring the security and privacy of the patient’s private health information a challenge when offering service remotely and involving third party providers and technologies. However, healthcare and technology providers can work together to ensure data security and compliance with HIPAA and other relevant healthcare requirements.
Failure to protect sensitive data can cause various problems to the providers and patients as well as insurance companies. In particular, there are risks of liabilities arising from privacy issues for the patients and providers in the event of a cyber-attack that compromises the data.
Lack of IT resources and infrastructure to deploy Telemedicine
Telemedicine requires its own set of technologies in terms of hardware and software as well as the communication infrastructure. Some healthcare providers may not have adequate resources to deploy and support such technology or scale to meet growing demands.
Lack of in-house IT capacity necessities the need to engage third-party providers and platforms which may create additional privacy risks. Also, the technology will require other policy and institutional changes to accommodate the practice. Insurance companies, for example, will need to adjust their policies to support telemedicine adequately.
Getting the right technology to support telemedicine can be a problem in some areas. In particular, the small health facilities, may not afford the technology. Weak or unstable networks or lack of suitable communication links can also limit the reach or affect the quality of service.
The Telemedicine healthcare model has been growing over the last few years. However, its use has seen a large spike during the coronavirus pandemic and this trend is likely to continue post-COVID-19. The technology provides a wide range of financial, convenience, and safety benefits to healthcare providers, insurance companies, and patients. However, the providers and regulators will need to overcome various technology, policy, and data privacy challenges.
Moving forward, the providers can seek guidance from the established regulators and medical associations. These should ideally recommend reliable technologies, third-party vendors, and providers who will ensure that the telemedicine platform will not compromise the services and data security.