The COVID 19 Pandemic has mainstreamed telemedicine for good
Telehealth or the facility for patients to connect with doctors remotely is a service that has been available for almost two decades. However, until as early as three months back, it was mostly considered just an alternative to traditional physician consultations or a service required to bridge the doctor-availability gap in rural areas. In 2017, a Survey in the US found that 82% of the consumers did not use telemedicine. According to another report, telehealth implementation in outpatient facilities rose barely by 5 percent in the US between 2017 and 2018. In India and other developing countries, telehealth facilities have witnessed a rise in demand over the past decade, propelled by better Internet penetration and speed. However, a bulk of this growth has come from rural and under-served areas where doctors are in short supply.
The COVID 19 pandemic has suddenly changed this. It has acted as an unexpected disruptor, catapulting telemedicine to the mainstream. With healthcare systems overwhelmed with the global pandemic and hospitals shutting down non-emergency OPDs, the demand for telehealth services has surged like never before. Most hospitals across India have thrown open teleconsultation routes to ensure patients keep receiving the continuum of care. At Apollo TeleHealth, we have witnessed an almost 100% increase in teleconsultations since the outbreak
erupted. These consultations are sought by suspected patients and even confirmed cases who are isolated at home.
A major part of the telehealth consumers today are people with existing illnesses and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, etc which need constant medical attention. Expecting women and children are also getting in touch with their gynecologists and pediatricians respectively through the teleconsultation route to avoid exposing themselves to infection at hospitals. Over the near future, this shift is likely to convert into behavioral change for a large number of people.
Governments make policy shifts
Governments across the world have been quick to take note of the fact that telehealth has suddenly become indispensable in an environment where people are required to be kept in their homes as much as possible. The US administration announced the expansion of telehealth services for senior citizens and other disadvantaged people by including teleconsultations under state health insurer Medicare.
The Indian government acted swiftly by announcing the first-ever guidelines governing telemedicine services. Through this, not only did the government formally recognize the role of telemedicine but also gave statutory protection to healthcare practitioners offering this service. The Telemedicine Society of India in conjunction with partners, quickly prepared webinar modules to sensitize doctors to leverage telemedicine to the fullest in the time of this crisis. The training modules are serving as important orientation ground for healthcare practitioners across India by upskilling them in using technology to reach out to remote patients effectively.
Such policy actions from the government will serve as a bedrock for establishing a strong base for telehealth services for the future.
The Shift is Likely to Stay
This quantum leap into the future has been sudden and unexpected. However, this increasing preference for telehealth services is likely to stay even when the COVID 19 crisis abates. So, even as a majority of people jumped on to the telehealth bandwagon because of the current necessity, the shift is likely to bring in a behavioral change by making them abreast of the benefits and convenience it brings. For many people who have experienced the convenience and comfort of teleconsultation, this period is expected to kick in a long term behavioral shift. This is particularly true for the elderly and people with chronic diseases for whom travelling to hospitals or clinics is physically daunting. Telehealth, as many people have realized, also cuts the inconvenience of long queues and waiting times; not to mention the cost of travelling. Another positive impact of widespread usage of telehealth is the reduction in hospital visits which ensures better management of patients, faster movement of waiting queues, and lesser waiting time. This is why as much as patients, healthcare providers are also likely to mainstream telehealth services.
If there has been a silver lining from this dark pandemic cloud, this is it. As both patients and healthcare providers take their lessons from the current shift, telehealth will emerge as of particular importance in managing chronic diseases, complete with AI-backed home monitoring devices that can update doctors about the vital health parameters of their patients remotely. The COVID 19 Pandemic has mainstreamed telehealth for good!