IS TELEHEALTH HUMANISING HEALTHCARE?
February 24th, 2021
THE EXPLOSION OF TELEHEALTH: WHAT DID WE LEARN?
As of February 23rd, Bloomberg reports that more than 213 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide. With every dose administered, the world edges nearer and nearer to returning to a vaguely familiar, dare we say it, ‘new normal’. The healthcare industry, which underwent a particularly dramatic digital transformation during the pandemic, now stands at a crossroads. We can’t go back, but we also need to assess and ensure we’re moving forward in the right direction.
In the US alone, consumer adoption of telehealth services soared from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020 as pandemic-related policy changes removed prior barriers to telehealth access and promoted its use in providing primary, acute, chronic and speciality care (McKinsey) (CDC). While this dramatic increase is remarkable, the explosion of telehealth was not so unexpected considering its steady incline in the years prior. In the five years before 2019, telemedicine usage had already grown by 44% (GlobalMed).
From March 2020 onwards, though, not only were telehealth replacements for face-to-face consultations adopted, but they were embraced at speed and with impressive efficacy. By May last year, a mere 2 months after COVID-19 had hit with full force;
76% of consumers reported interest in using telehealth going forward
74% of telehealth users reported high satisfaction
57% of providers reported viewing telehealth more favourably than before
64% of providers reported feeling more comfortable using telehealth (McKinsey)
It became almost immediately obvious that many outpatient visits across a range of clinical settings could be triaged and managed effectively through the use of telehealth without compromise to quality of care. The infrastructure for connectivity proved widely available to enable virtual healthcare delivery on both provider and patient side, and in many situations could actually increase access to care for remote populations. The relaxation of all restrictive regulations, namely reimbursement, licensing and data privacy, had quashed all pre-existing reservations held by patients and providers as both groups reported high levels of satisfaction.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF HEALTHCARE?
As a post-pandemic future (hopefully) nears, it is clear that we should not revert back to pre-pandemic configurations of care. There will of course always be instances where in-person care and physical examination is needed, but the proliferation and acceptance of telehealth and telemedicine provides a tremendous opportunity to both lower costs and improve experiences for patients and providers, to increase access to care and to improve outcomes of care.
The global market for telehealth and telemedicine technologies is expected to grow from $38.7 billion in 2020 to $191.7 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 37.7% (Reportlinker.com). In this timeframe, the drivers behind their adoption will change, and with that comes the challenge of ensuring that the current COVID-related drive of necessity is supplanted by the right motivations moving forward; meaning motivations to improve patient outcomes rather than to solely maximise revenue.
In a recent presentation at the EHTEL Symposium, Micaela Seeman Monteiro, Member of the Roster of Experts for Digital Health at WHO, proposed that one of the main drivers of this digital transformation going forward will be the rise of chronic disease as the main consumer of health resources. In order to win the battle against the chronic disease pandemic, Micaela advocated for a paradigm shift towards proactive, preventive and personalised healthcare, where telehealth is meaningfully embedded into hybrid patient care journeys.
OF PERSONALISED HEALTHCARE
Aging populations, specifically the correlation between a decrease in mortality and an inversed increase in morbidity, are leading to patients spending longer amounts of time living with chronic conditions (EU). The resulting burden on healthcare systems is forecasted to reach $47 trillion by 2023 (WEF), and implementing hybrid care models that more effectively enable preventive care and early intervention are essential to ensuring the sustainability of these systems (WHO).
An important aspect of enabling effective preventive care is the paradigm shift towards personalising healthcare. As the era of digital health technology dawns and increasing swathes of information are captured, stored and analysed, we learn more about how diseases manifest themselves both on a molecular level and in the day-to-day experiences of patients. These insights are facilitating the move away from generalised care models where broad categories of diseases are treated with the same medicines resulting in varying efficacies. Instead, advancements in remote diagnostic technologies are allowing patients and HCPs to make more informed, individualised decisions about whether, when and how to treat their illnesses, improving patient outcomes as a result. Recent innovations around the ability for remote diagnostics to not only collect and analyse these insights but to also provide personalised, predictive intelligence are particularly exciting.
And it is only by meaningfully embedding telehealth into hybrid care models that provide benefits to both patients and providers while mitigating the risk of improved care outcomes and experiences being sacrificed for profit that we can enable personalised healthcare and its associated potential for improving quality of life across the globe.
In a recent chat prior to the publication of this article, Micaela of the WHO’s Roster of Experts for Digital Health expanded that:
"Telehealth is the building block of healthcare transformation and the most exciting piece of this is the data-driven, scalable care we will enable through technology, which brings challenges but also huge, huge opportunities to improve and humanise care.”
We agree, Micaela!
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