Besides the huge leap in the structure of our lifestyle, the pandemic has encouraged some very impactful changes and initiatives to the world. One such breakthrough is the boom in the telemedicine industry. As of May, more than 100 countries are resorting to varying measures to limit transmission. But these measures are insufficient to stop the overstretching of healthcare systems that were already overwhelmed before COVID-19. The lockdown is causing patients with critical needs to delay important health care decisions that require hospital visits. The raging COVID-19 battle has even turned hospitals into one of the riskiest places for both patients and healthcare workers. Therefore, government leaders and other stakeholders, need to reimagine how healthcare services can be delivered. This is where telemedicine comes into play. So, what is telemedicine? The name represents quite the obvious – the ability to deliver healthcare services remotely, using computing devices, telephone, and customer-facing AI-powered apps.
THE BOOMING DEMAND
To meet the baseline demand, physicians and hospital systems are increasingly turning to a network of technology-enabled digital telehealth solutions to bridge the gap. Many health systems developed a telemedicine platform or expanded existing services to screen patients away from the facility. Patients received consultation by phone with a call center or care provider or entered symptoms on a mHealth app or website. More sophisticated programs used audio-visual telemedicine platforms to arrange virtual visits which enables both physicians and patients to connect. Hospitals created isolation rooms or wards and used kiosks or telemedicine platforms to interact with patients. Many are using remote patient monitoring platforms to provide care for infected and potentially contagious patients in their own homes. “The dirty little secret that any honest physician will tell you is that 90% of primary care visits can be done remotely and the ‘in-person’ part just makes the patients feel better because they can look their doctor in the eye,” said Alex Turkeltaub, founder of Roam Analytics.
BANGLADESH ADAPTING TELEHEALTH
Already, some countries have increased the production of ventilators, PPE, and testing kits to supplement the existing model of healthcare delivery, while others are encouraging the use of telehealth services. One such example is Bangladesh where Swachip together with BMA started telemedicine services through 500 mobile phone numbers of physicians. There are designated hotline numbers in every medical college and designated mobile phone numbers in all health complexes to render telemedicine services across the country. A short-training program was held for physicians, where 400 physicians had shown interest. Dr. Abu Sayeed Shimul, a consultant at Mugda Medical College, along with a group of physicians, opened a Facebook page ‘Child Corona Awareness-Bangladesh’ to support parents online. About 13,000 members have joined their page and about 105 physicians provide prescriptions to some 300-400 people daily on this Facebook page. Additionally, they launched a web application ‘COVID Test for BD’ through which 70,000 people have received medical services so far. Besides, a volunteer group of physicians formed ‘Doctors for Covid-19 Solutions Bangladesh’ platform in the country to provide consultation to both COVID or non-COVID patients through telephones. BSMMU has recently launched telemedicine services through the hotline number – 09611677777 using which people will be able to get advice from specialists.
The best-known company in the booming consumer telehealth space is Teledoc Health, global telemedicine, and virtual health care conglomerate founded in Dallas, Texas in 2002. The company shares have shot up over 50% in the past three months since the outbreak. The FCC of the US announced a $200 million program to help fund telehealth initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Chicago-based company, Clearstep, walks users step-by-step through their care options and address their concerns in a streamlined and individualized way while helping health systems meet the demands of the modern consumer. Another startup, Vidscrip, enables physicians to record video answers to patients’ queries through existing channels. The Minneapolis-based startup recently announced a partnership with AstraZeneca to roll out its platform across the pharmaceutical giants. The program aims to free up physician resources while helping patients make better decisions about their medical conditions and treatment plans as they relate to the novel coronavirus.
The telemedicine approach could be a game-changer for the healthcare industry – but scaling its implementation will require well-coordinated action between governments, tech firms, and healthcare providers to overcome the existing barriers.
Lack of proper infrastructure. Advances in and availability of mobile computing, AI chatbots, and telemedicine platforms require countries with a readily available 3G or 4G network. However, the majority of governments are largely silent on the subject of digital health technology.
Reimbursement issues. Telehealth becomes complicated for millions of uninsured patients in the rest of the world. Therefore, the government has to be agile enough to relax the rules on telemedicine reimbursement – such as enabling a doctor to diagnose, treat, and prescribe from anywhere and still be reimbursed.
Ensuring Data Protection. The healthcare industry is very rigid. However, in times of deadly pandemics, this rigidity can endanger the very people it seeks to protect. Therefore, the government should relax data-sharing laws with sufficient care to ensure that the core of personal information protection is preserved.
Setup Challenges. Telemedicine is today increasingly run by start-ups which have faced significant challenges in overcoming resistance from doctors and established healthcare systems. However, during this time of crisis, the hospitals need to quickly integrate telemedicine availing healthcare workers with tablets, mobile computing, license resources, as well as training to launch such services.
Educating people. Similar to campaigns regarding social distance, governments could use political platforms, public health campaigns, and online education programs to drive telemedicine adoption and ensure that the public can still receive healthcare services.
THE NEW NORMAL
Nonetheless, patients who are fearful of venturing out of their homes during the quarantine for routine doctor visits are turning to telehealth. Jon Pearce, CEO of Zipnosis said, “This toothpaste is not going back into the tube. Telehealth will be the new normal after the Coronavirus pandemic subsides”. In April, a survey of 1,300 physicians conducted by Sermo found that 90% were using at least some form of telehealth and 60% were planning to continue that practice after the emergency. The coronavirus is giving healthcare providers the confidence to use telehealth and mHealth tools to assess their patients’ needs and decide on a course of action that reduces wasteful expenses and saves time. Moreover, Telehealth provides the opportunity to move from a highly scheduled experience to a much more relational experience for both patients and providers. With CMS beginning to offer some reimbursement for certain services delivered to the home, providers have been trying out telemedicine platforms and mHealth devices, even looking into the smart home concept.
IN A NUTSHELL
Telehealth enables a data-rich platform that connects providers to patients at any time. The current pandemic will upend our perspective towards healthcare, as telehealth and telemedicine become integral. The pandemic has accelerated the consumerization of healthcare as patients realize they have more digital and virtual options for healthcare services. Once everyone gets exposed to the benefits and efficiencies of telehealth, it will become the dominant way to access primary care. Shortages of doctors, particularly in rural areas, can be alleviated quickly via telehealth.