Is telehealth here to stay?Marie Donlon | April 20, 2021
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth (also called telemedicine) was an idea that had not yet reached its full potential. At best, it was reserved for treating patients in far-flung but connected regions of the world where healthcare access was limited or just downright unattainable.
Little did we know that once the pandemic hit, the face of healthcare — in person visits, trips to emergency rooms and urgent cares, therapy sessions, and even routine dental appointments — would change, with appointments that were once such a regular component of daily life discouraged or canceled altogether. In fact, the pandemic had most of us questioning whether a routine visit to a doctor — be it to refill medications, obtain referrals, or just to examine some new and seemingly minor ailment — was worth risking transmission of the COVID-19 virus, which, depending upon a patient's demographic, could be tantamount to a life or death decision.
To prevent patients from having to make such dire life or death decisions, most healthcare facilities rallied, offering patients assorted telehealth options to check in with their healthcare providers for everything from routine exams to visits with therapists and mental health practitioners.
Pivoting quickly to accommodate patients via ZOOM, Teams and other videoconferencing platforms, the business of healthcare resumed, albeit from different settings and sometimes choppy connections.
Now that a year has passed and hints of a resumption of pre-COVID-19 life are starting to emerge thanks to the expedited roll out of vaccines, it begs the question: is telehealth here to stay?
To attempt to answer that, let’s take a look at all of the benefits and drawbacks encountered thus far on our year-long telehealth journey.
One of the many benefits encountered with telehealth according to assorted reports is that doctor's appointments are easier to schedule, oftentimes within the same day. There is also appointment availability remotely both after hours and on weekends.
Particularly helpful during a pandemic is that fewer people are in physical healthcare settings, so this simultaneously keeps people safe at home while lowering the risk of transmission for more critical patients who require an in-person visit. Additionally, telehealth ensures that patient exposure to other illnesses beyond COVID-19 is also limited.
Telehealth appointments also eliminate the commute times and wait times patients would typically encounter in a physical clinic or doctor’s office. Likewise, telehealth also eliminates the amount of time doctors spend moving from room to room, stopping to file paperwork or talking to a colleague that would naturally occur in an in-person setting. Consequently, there are suggestions that telehealth appointments are now shorter than in-person appointments, averaging about 15 minutes a session.
Telehealth can also offer people living in remote regions access to healthcare who might have to wait significant periods of time for an in-person visit to a healthcare practitioner located physically far away.
Primary care appointments
Helping to ensure that telehealth is a successful venture is the availability of assorted wearables and technologies that make it possible to measure vital signs and other critical data that would typically be monitored at an annual physical or other in-person appointment.
For instance, researchers from the University of Washington have developed a technique for measuring a patient’s pulse and respiration signals via real-time video of that patient’s face captured by either smartphone or computer.
Healthy U from HD Medical is another platform designed to measure vitals — blood pressure, temperature, respiration, pulse ox, lung and heart sounds — via the Healthy U all-in-one remote patient platform. Once captured, that information is communicated to a remote healthcare professional.
These are just two examples of the technology emerging from remote healthcare in addition to the countless wearable electronic devices that have already launched both before and during the pandemic.
Mental health appointments
The area of healthcare that has arguably benefitted most from the emergence of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has been mental health.
For the last year, people haven’t simply had to struggle with surviving a worldwide pandemic. They also had to deal with the wave of byproducts from said pandemic — that is everything from job losses to the death of a loved one. Luckily, the therapy and mental health appointments that folks rely on even during the best of times, mostly managed to figure out the telehealth thing pretty quickly, with some studies suggesting a number of unexpected benefits to remote mental health appointments.
For instance, researchers from Tulane University have reported that telehealth appointments conducted at a New Orleans’ virtual mental health clinic resulted in improved patient engagement, mitigated symptoms and reduced hospitalizations during the pandemic. According to that same research, some of the benefits achieved via telehealth appointments resulted from practitioners better understanding their patients by getting to know them in their personal settings and homes. They get a chance to observe patient behaviors in the home, meet family members and develop an overall sense of what the person’s physical environment is like.
But its not all good news.
Despite its many perceived benefits, telehealth still has one glaring obstacle: connectivity.
Not everyone has access to the technology or the networking necessary to participate in telehealth care. The culprits are much the same as those affecting populations living in impoverished and/or remote regions without the infrastructure to support such technology. As such, telehealth access will still be limited to certain populations as well as by factors such as age, insurance coverage, gender, race and ethnicity — much as it is with traditional healthcare access.
Regardless of whether telehealth is the future of medicine or not, this trial run has revealed that it has the potential to stick around. However, oversight will be necessary after the pandemic is over, if not sooner, to ensure that the option exists for everyone.
Let Engineering360 know in the comment section whether telehealth is likely here to stay.