Telemedicine Isn’t Just Here To Help – It’s Here To Stay

By Heather Fraser, global lead for life sciences and healthcare, IBM Institute for Business Value

Heather Fraser

According to a recent IBM Institute for Business Value survey of more than 5,000 U.S. adults, just over 36% of respondents have already taken advantage of telemedicine services to seek remote care for less urgent health issues since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of those surveyed, 59% plan to keep using these services into the future, despite the fact that only one-fifth of those surveyed sought virtual care before.

As patients and their providers increasingly recognize the value of engaging virtually, and as we transition into our ‘new normal’, healthcare organizations will need to expand their virtual capabilities to keep up with increased demand for telemedicine while ensuring personalized, seamless delivery of high-quality care. But how?

Increased adoption fuels greater acceleration

Virtual health services and capabilities have been available for quite some time. But in light of a strained and reconfigured healthcare system due to COVID-19 – and with many patients self-isolating – the rate of adoption and use has increased. In years to come, this adoption is likely to gain momentum as demand continues to grow.

Routine face-to-face medical care is now limited for most Americans due to the pandemic, prompting many to take advantage of remote services to access the care they need. And as many parts of the country plan ahead for a world with less in-person interaction, more consumers may choose to forego the process of scheduling an in-person appointment with their provider if they know that it’s possible to receive the same high-quality care through virtual visits.

More than half of those surveyed in IBM’s latest poll indicate they have had a positive experience using telehealthcare services, such as telemedicine, telenursing and telepharmacy, either before or during the current crisis – and that positive experience must be upheld.

To maintain and build on the increased traction of virtual care, providers need to work to ensure that these platforms and services are easy to use for those who are not technologically savvy. It is also critical that they support these services with robust and secure infrastructure so their digital offerings are available and reliable at all times – to the benefit of both patients and doctors.

There is mounting evidence that telehealth helps increase value, improve patient convenience and address physician burnout. 2019 data sourced in collaboration between IBM Watson Health and the American Telemedicine Association showed a correlation between higher-performing hospitals and the adoption of telehealth strategies in care delivery. In an analysis of 2,782 U.S. hospitals, the data showed a significant correlation between the adoption of telehealth and mortality rates, as well as complication rates.

Strengthening capabilities with artificial intelligence

To take these offerings a step further, traditional telemedicine services can be complimented by AI-enabled solutions that can augment the delivery of convenient care. At the height of COVID-19, and before patients considered virtual care to be a viable alternative to their usual in-person visits, consumers sought fast and reliable answers to concerns about precautionary procedures, testing, procedures and recommended courses of action.

Many of these questions can be answered digitally using existing insights. Healthcare organizations throughout the world are turning to technologies like AI chatbots to generate helpful, actionable information for citizens to compliment in-person services.

Once again – this involves rethinking and deploying existing solutions like chatbots and digital assistants for healthcare purposes. These technologies have been available to help address questions and concerns from consumers across industries including banking, retail and hospitality. So why not build them up within the healthcare field, to more quickly accommodate a diverse range of patient needs?

Technology that works harder for patients of the future

Technologies for patient engagement can extend providers’ resources to help efficiently improve patient outcomes, identify gaps in care, engage priority patients and measure overall progress. This is especially crucial for a system whose caregivers face their own set of challenges in readily and effectively deploying available resources and staff to address the concerns of increasingly demanding patients.

Projections from the Association of American Medical Colleges say the U.S. will see a shortage of 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032 in primary and specialty care. Enter telemedicine – which can help physicians extend reach to patients who live far from high-density areas, or in developing countries where it is arguably more difficult to schedule an appointment or see a doctor in-person.

Healthcare providers who are able to adapt to meet these evolving consumer needs expectations will have a real advantage at a pivotal moment throughout the industry. Patient needs are changing at an unprecedented pace, as are the ways in which they opt to engage with their providers. Therefore, doctors are faced with the challenge of addressing those needs in similarly unprecedented ways, and technology has a critical role to play in making this happen.

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