By Adrian Johansen, freelance writer; @AdrianJohanse18.
COVID-19 has brought a great deal of change to how we live our lives. The need to maintain safe-distance protocols has seen many industries shift to remote operations wherever possible. In healthcare spaces, this has been a significant challenge. We have been forced to adapt to achieve the delicate balance between ensuring patients get the care they need, and reducing the risk of exposure.
This is where telehealth has really come into its own. While the numbers are still up in the air, one recent study found that insurance claims for telehealth services increased 2,938% between November 2019 and November 2020. Patients and professionals alike have in some ways been forced past their personal and technological roadblocks, discovering the many benefits that utilizing care services remotely can offer. Indeed, as we start to see some light at the end of the dark tunnel that has engulfed our society over the last year or so, telehealth has become a more permanent feature of our healthcare landscape.
This raises some interesting questions and some important issues about the near future of telehealth. We’re going to take a look at what we are likely to see as we emerge from the pandemic. What tools and practices could make a difference? What problems do we still need to solve?
Remote appointments are already starting to make our lives safer. Particularly for those in rural communities who may not have immediate access to doctors, telehealth means that medical professionals can visually assess conditions and give advice. However, as we move toward the future there needs to be an emphasis on how medical professionals can treat a wider range of conditions, preventing patients from taking the unnecessary risk of exacerbating their conditions by traveling to doctors’ offices.
Part of this involves producing an infrastructure with various providers that supports collaboration. Facilities must build relationships that allow them to assess a patient remotely, then hand off to a specialist, traveling nursing staff, or pharmacist who can visit patients to undertake further care. Alongside these relationships, it’s important to build, and frequently assess, robust protocols that ensure that these collaborations are undertaken efficiently and safely, without any points at which patient welfare slips through the net.
Telehealth is also already serving patient safety from a data protection standpoint. Records that are purely digital, and appointments that are virtual eliminate the potential for physical files to be left open for unauthorized viewing, or for sensitive discussions to be overheard. However, remote operations are at risk from various types of computer crime.
Data theft, illicit alteration of records, financial information breaches, not to mention viral contamination could all put patients and medical facilities at risk. Most platforms that are Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant already adhere to some form of encryption. However, if we are to continue to use various types of remote technology to innovate in health, there must be a commitment to frequent assessment of cybersecurity risks, training for safe behavior, and adoption of robust security protocols and software.
We often look at telehealth as a solution to specific medical issues. It’s a tool to limit the exposure of a virus, or an efficient way to monitor patients. However, it’s worth noting that one of the most important roles telehealth can play in the years after the pandemic is in improving the lifestyles of both patients and medical professionals.
Stress is a huge issue in most medical fields. Indeed, it is one of the primary reasons that there is a growing shortage of qualified healthcare workers worldwide. Burnout, even aside from major public health crises, causes many qualified professionals to leave the field or take early retirement.
Moving forward, medical professionals could see a reduction in the day-to-day stresses that they are confronted with if the medical community can give them options to undertake practices that are purely, or mostly, telehealth-based. This would enable them to focus on the patients on the screen and adopt a schedule that doesn’t require overtime.
In turn, an uptick in the number of professionals seeing remote patients could relieve pressure from other medical professionals. If remote practices are fully staffed, it means that in-person staff is not overly burdened by non-emergency cases. Moving forward, telehealth can be a tool for better balancing healthcare professionals’ lives.
For patients, this can also mean better relationships with their healthcare providers. There isn’t the stress involved with traveling to medical facilities, or sitting in waiting rooms with other sick people. Telehealth places an emphasis on one-on-one conversation, allowing patients to receive care from the comfort of their own homes, giving them the sense that the doctor’s or nurse’s full attention and care are being placed on them. As we see this method of appointment become closer to the norm, we may see more positive patient outcomes due to the simplicity and pleasant nature of remote care.
One of the most important effects that telehealth can have on the future of care is improving choice. During this pandemic, medical professionals have come to understand how remote appointments are as much about education as treatment. In the early days, questions abounded regarding remdesivir, which was approved by the FDA for emergency use on May 1. Now, research shows remdesivir is effective for reducing infected cells. Telehealth can help doctors relay this information to people who have questions about remdesivir. Patients need to be guided with up-to-date information that allows them to make safe and relevant healthcare decisions.
Remote appointments will be a key tool for this both now and in the future. Telehealth platforms are not just useful for examinations, they also allow for the immediate sharing of documentation and discussions on current research. At a time when patients have access to varied types of news, not to mention misinformation, doctors that are accessible via a video call can be the trusted, reliable resource that empowers them to make informed decisions.
Telehealth is becoming more accessible to both medical facilities and patients. The pandemic has seen telehealth uptake improve, and patients have begun to understand the advantages it offers. As we move out of this public health crisis, we can start to see how it can continue to have a positive influence from the perspectives of enhanced safety, improved lifestyles, and empowering patients with greater choice.