The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent lockdowns and quarantines altered people’s lives in every imaginable way — and healthcare was no exception. COVID-19 threw challenges at every industry, but above all else, it proved a true test for global healthcare systems.
As people stayed indoors, they turned to the internet and technology for work, to socialize, and for health services. The National Health Service (NHS) became overburdened with the influx of pandemic victims, in addition to other patients and rising health concerns. This strain on the system and the need for patients to stay indoors catalyzed telehealth services last year, and has set the tone for the future of telehealth across the globe.
The Need For Telehealth
Now more than ever, it’s become evident how urgently we need better telehealth services.
Despite several vaccines rolling out in the next year, experts believe that COVID-19 may never be completely eradicated. This has put healthcare institutions in an extremely difficult position with NHS England reporting a backlog of 4.44 million patients as of October 2020. Adopting telehealth services will ease this burden, and conserve essential supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and bed-space as well as reduce the risk of contagion amongst patients and medical personnel.
Rise of Telehealth
With the onset of COVID-19, most industries experienced an overnight digital transformation, especially healthcare. Though telehealth has been a steadily growing sector for a few years, the pandemic has catapulted its growth. Three factors, in particular, are supporting this surge.
- New technology: Telehealth is no longer limited to just barcoding or electronic records. In the last 2 years, technology has been optimizing patient care. From VR being used to treat PTSD and employing robots as hospital assistants, to advances in nanotechnology, technology has paved the way for us to survive and thrive in healthcare, even during a pandemic. Since technology has become so ingrained in healthcare, it’s easier to treat patients in remote settings. Companies are even using online vision tests to create custom eyewear.
- Government support: To reduce the strain on frontline medical workers, governments this year have approved regulatory laws quicker than ever before, paving the way for telehealth services. The UK is set to be one of the biggest investors in the future of telehealth. In September 2020, the NHS declared that 42 tech companies would receive a share of more than £50M in the first phase of its £140M AI in Health and Care Award, reports NS Tech.
- Public Acceptance: Though the public was gradually starting to accept telehealth in their lives, concerns over privacy and data were major setbacks. However, the pandemic panic brought on an explosion in demand for telehealth services, especially in the UK. In March alone, just as COVID-19 was infiltrating the country, registrations on the NHS app increased by 111% and prescription requests by 97%. In the following months, these numbers only increased and a large part of the population is now comfortably integrating telehealth.
Benefits of Telehealth
Convenience aside, telehealth offers several benefits for patients:
- Access to medical care: Telehealth offers anyone with an internet connection, regardless of where they are, access to medical care. This is especially beneficial for seniors, disabled and disadvantaged communities.
- Improves the quality of care: Patients that utilize telehealth services have been shown to spend fewer days in the hospital, as well as have fewer hospital admissions. As such, a majority of medical interactions don’t require physical tests or examinations. This is even more true for services in the mental health care and senior health care fields. While telehealth isn’t meant to replace in-person visits, ultimately, these visits aren’t usually what patients require. Thus, telehealth can meet the demands of patients in a more effective manner, providing quality care through more convenient channels. Telehealth can also be applied to alternative medicine, further improving the high standard of care holistic therapists tend to provide.
- More patients get medical attention: Bed-space and supplies like PPE and ventilators are always coming up short. Telehealth helps save patients a trip to the clinic and helps institutions better manage their supplies. Additionally, telehealth interactions are usually shorter than in-person consultations, therefore allowing medical professionals to see more patients.
The Future of Telehealth
Due to these benefits, telehealth has emerged as a hero during this pandemic, but what does its future hold? Untapped potential means endless possibilities and as technology advances and more patients and medical personnel adopt it, it’s clear that telehealth is here to stay post the pandemic.
As telehealth grows, it will likely improve long-term care. Patients in long-term care facilities like nursing homes and hospices who suffer from chronic conditions will benefit from 24/7 medical access, better specialty visits, and better patient care. In a similar vein, telehealth in the future will greatly increase access and distribution of care. Telehealth in the time of COVID-19 has also shown governments the importance of online/telephonic healthcare. Due to this, it seems that the future will surely hold more favorable legislation and investment to help this sector grow.
The pandemic has shed a harsh light on medical inequity, further highlighting how some sections of society are severely neglected by the healthcare and social care system. In the future, telehealth will make healthcare more accessible and de-concentrate services from large hospitals, so that it becomes easier and faster to receive medical attention.
Telehealth is set to revolutionize not just healthcare institutions but patients’ interactions, ownership, and involvement in their health. As recent innovations and perhaps even new medical concerns arise, telehealth will be a key player in how mankind tackles these challenges.