Sometimes, it takes a major and unexpected event to popularize a lesser-known practice or tradition. Remote diagnostics and telemedicine are not exactly a new phenomenon in the healthcare sector. However, it was practiced only by a minuscule section of users before 2020. Then the catastrophe called COVID-19 pandemic occurred, and everything changed in an unprecedented manner. From a relatively lesser-known practice in the healthcare sector, it became the darling of everyone, including the patients, physicians, and healthcare sector entities.
The massive growth of telemedicine post-2020
In the first quarter of 2020, the world was hit unexpectedly by the pandemic, and the govts in various countries imposed the lockdown in a hurried manner. It affected the livelihood, education, and economy in a massive way. Of course, it impacted the healthcare sector in a big way. Suddenly, the doctors and healthcare staff found using telehealth apps to diagnose and treat patients is a better option. In March 2020, telehealth-based visits shot up to 154 percent, compared to what it was in 2019. The trend continues in 2021, as 48 percent of doctors have embraced it.
Why and how telehealth surged, fuelled by the pandemic
It took the masses some time to let the reality of lockdown sink in, in many parts of the world. They soon discovered that maintaining physical distance was the safest option for everything-including medical check-ups and diagnoses. Despite the lack of awareness and initial reluctance, soon, the patients and physicians realized, embracing telehealth was the way to go.
- The patients who require check-ups and treatment found it taxing to adhere to regular methods when the pandemic hit the world. With transport very limited and doctors staying out of hospitals and clinics at times, using telemedicine apps emerged as the choice.
- For people stuck with mobility-related ailments, moving around during the pandemic was not an option as well. They, too, found using telehealth apps the safe bet.
- For vulnerable groups like the elderly and the kids, telemedicine services proved to be a savior in the pandemic season.
- After the government announced a lockdown on a global level, millions of professionals were forced to switch to work from home mode. They found it tough to strike a balance, and finding out additional time for medical visits and diagnostics seemed tedious for them. They also switched to telemedicine services and apps as a solution to resolve health issues in such trying times.
- As the lockdowns were imposed drastically in some countries, including India, a section of people were stuck in rural and remote regions, away from the convenience of urban amenities, including traditional healthcare. Lack of transport meant they could not access the healthcare entities located in cities easily. For such people, accessing online telemedicine services was the only option left.
- The physicians woke up to the benefits offered by telehealth apps faster than the others. They belong to high-risk groups owing to constant exposure to the patients in a pandemic situation. By using telemedicine services, they can reduce exposure to possibly infected patients. Besides, using these apps helps them save time, and they can cater to more patients in the same time frame.
The combination of all these factors led to massive growth in the usage of telemedicine all over the world.
The hurdles encountered for deploying telehealth services on large-scale
While the healthcare entities and a majority of doctors were quick to embrace telehealth services to cope with the pandemic-induced issues, the adoption and growth were not without their share of problems! Both the doctors and patients encountered a number of problems while trying to use these services and apps:
- Lack of skill- For a section of doctors and healthcare sector staff, lack of skill in using telemedicine services proved to be a hindrance in adoption. The senior doctors and staff, and nurses without technology proficiency found it hard to get accustomed to these online tools and apps. The same issue was faced by a lot of patients who are not tech-savvy.
- Lack of resources– In some small healthcare entities, making the switch over to telemedicine services was tough for people living below poverty lines and those without access to a PC and smartphone. Using these online services was next to impossible.
- Lack of adequate infrastructure– In some places, people faced hardships in using telehealth services and applications owing to inadequate or poor internet access services. While the 4G LTE network is widespread, there exist places where users find it hard to get a good cellular signal. The bandwidth-hungry telemedicine apps need a steady bandwidth to run properly. People living in rural and remote regions faced this hiccup when they tried to use such services.
- Lack of regulations- Some patients found it hard to convince their insurers to provide the cost for telehealth services. While by now, the health insurance providers have amended their policies and some of them include telehealth in their packages, that was not the case when the pandemic first struck.
What does the future of telehealth services look like
The pandemic continues to rage on, prompting a fresh wave of lockdowns in various parts of the world. So, it is quite clear that telemedicine services are here to stay. Even without the lockdown, such digital services can be handy for treating the elderly, mobility-impaired lot, and chronic ailment patients. However, certain enhancements need to be made to streamline telehealth services and make these easily accessible to all types of users.
- There has to be some kind of standardization for the deployment of telehealth services. Now, the medical entities are using various types of applications, leading to segmentation. The applications have to be tweaked to run on a wide range of platforms, devices, and browsers, to accelerate mass-scale adoption.
- Health care entities need to offer telemedicine services as an integral part of their packages. Post the pandemic; many such entities hurried to incorporate the apps and services in their existing online services and setups. The integration of telemedicine with EHR has to be solid, say the experts. Compliance with medical industry protocols like HIPAA has to be ensured as well.
- Telemedicine applications have to be made more intuitive and user-friendly to boost the rate of adoption. Provisions must be made for the visually impaired lot and handicapped users too. The applications should be able to run on low bandwidth.
The benefits of using telehealth services have been understood by the mass and the medical community, and the pandemic has acted as the catalyst. Even after the world returns to normalcy, using such services will be of immense use. The govts and healthcare sector technology developers need to deploy effective measures to boost the adoption of telehealth services. Regulation amendments and technology standardizations are also necessary in this regard.