Telehealth: Adapting to COVID-19 or Future of Healthcare?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted much of our daily life online. Across the world, we have begun going to work, attending social gatherings, and going to school from the confines of our own home as a way to reduce exposure to the virus for ourselves and our neighbors. While we battle the pandemic by staying at home, the healthcare sector of our country does so in person. COVID-19 has put hospitals and clinics under intense stress as they must now attempt to provide the best care for their patients while remaining at the highest risk of exposure to the virus. The pandemic has not stopped the need for non-emergency services, though, and to meet this need while maintaining social distancing, many healthcare institutions have opted to practice ‘telemedicine’.   

Telemedicine, also called telehealth, is an umbrella term that refers to the use of digital technologies and communications to manage your health and receive health care services remotely. The goal of telehealth is to make healthcare more accessible and convenient, such that healthcare needs are more easily met for those who cannot typically readily access care. It also provides a means of organizing personal health care information in a way that is easy for both patients and medical professionals and gives patients more of an insight into their health status.

In practice, telehealth often involves the use of apps or online health portals to manage your health data and appointments alongside your primary care provider. It is also increasingly being utilized to create new channels of communication between patients and medical professionals, through messaging and video chatting software that allows patients to speak with medical professionals regarding their health. Through both of these means, patients and medical professionals alike can remotely manage health trackers and ongoing treatment. So, if you go for a telehealth visit, it might look something like this:

A patient logs in to their virtual health portal on your computer and schedules an appointment with their doctor. Before their appointment, they acquire any materials specified by your healthcare providers such as a blood pressure cuff, a thermometer, a pulse oximeter, or a scale. At the time of their appointment, they log into a video conferencing room, via a webcam-enabled computer, where they are greeted by a nurse or doctor. Their medical history is assessed by the doctor during the visit much like an in-person visit, and with the doctor’s instruction, they will be able to check any necessary vital signs. Through this information, they will be provided with a diagnosis, any description of treatment they need, and follow-up appointments or remote health monitoring methods will be discussed. The notes for the visit will be uploaded to the patient’s health portal for future reference, and any necessary prescriptions can be sent virtually or to pharmacies.

For many, telehealth helps breakdown barriers to healthcare access. Remote healthcare allows those that live in rural areas to access primary and specialty care providers whose services are often sparse outside of urban and suburban areas. It also provides those that work long hours or are unable to take time off work with a means of seeking medical attention, as they can find an appointment time that works with their busy schedule and do not have to spend time commuting to their appointment and sitting in a waiting room. Health portals and visit notes also allow patients to have more agency in their healthcare, as all the resources and information about their health is centralized and organized in a way that is easily approachable and promotes understanding. And overall, telehealth provides convenience — a visit can be over in minutes rather than hours. 

However, the digital environment of telehealth is not accessible to everyone. It firstly requires strong internet connections, webcam enabled devices, and quiet environments for appointments. Even if a patient has access to these resources, learning how to use new digital interfaces may pose a challenge to many. Many also argue that the quality of care received in telehealth visits is less than that in person, as no physical examinations can occur, patients may not be able to visit their regular doctor virtually, those with complex medical histories may not have their needs met through the virtual environment. Insurance companies are also not yet fully equipped to cover telehealth visits, thus the industry remains a bad option for many patients. 

 There are issues with the technology behind telemedicine as well. Some virtual conferencing platforms do not allow users to encrypt their calls, meaning that all information exchanged in a confidential setting between a patient and a medical care provider may be accessible by third parties, which is a violation of patient privacy protocol. Some healthcare systems also rely on artificial intelligence that is built for medical settings to take some of the workload off of medical professionals, but these systems are relatively new and are not proven to provide the best care. Lastly, many healthcare systems have not yet invested in their online healthcare portals, leaving the interfaces used for telehealth relatively ineffectual. 

Despite the shortcomings of telehealth, its practice is likely to outlast the pandemic. It is estimated that 1 billion telehealth visits could occur in 2020, and many patients are opting for it as their primary means of communication with their doctor due to the convenience and accessibility. Primary healthcare providers are also increasingly investing in their telehealth infrastructure, cementing that this will be the future of healthcare in the digital age. With further use, telehealth can provide a means to strengthen patient-physician relationships and trust in healthcare systems, bridge the gaps in access that have historically existed in the industry, and ensure that every individual’s human right to healthcare is respected.