Telemedicine exploded in popularity as a response to the physical distancing required in response to COVID-19, with nearly every healthcare practice considering how to connect with patients remotely. Now, many parts of the world are starting to open up again, making it possible to see more patients in person.
Will healthcare practitioners abandon telemedicine and go back to business as usual? Not likely.
Many providers have found that a virtual medicine strategy provides advantages that have nothing to do with the pandemic, and will continue to pay off after it is over. It was a growing trend anyway, and will continue to grow now that the pandemic has forced it to the forefront. Here are six reasons why telemedicine is here to stay.
1. Patients are demanding virtual care options
When implemented carefully, telemedicine offers increased convenience to patients. For many services, telemedicine promises the same quality of healthcare, without the burden of traveling to another location, paying for parking, and sitting in a waiting room, often at a time when the last thing a patient wants to do is leave the house and mingle with other sick people.
Many patients prefer telemedicine for at least some services, and there is a trend toward patients having more influence to access healthcare services on their own terms. “Demand-driven care” is on the rise—healthcare providers are adapting to cater to the preferences of patients. Increasingly, patients can pick and choose who they will see for healthcare needs, based on factors like convenience, cost, and trust.
Telemedicine fits well with demand-driven care. When appropriate, an online appointment is more convenient to schedule and attend, it can be cost effective for both patient and provider, and it may even allow for more frequent and long-term check-ins, increasing the patient’s trust in a provider in a world where they can choose another option at any time.
Patient demand for telemedicine shows in survey numbers. In 2017, the majority of patients were interested in remote care online or by telephone. In 2020, COVID-19 has accelerated that trend—surging over 50%, according to some estimates, helped along by relaxed telehealth restrictions and expanded benefits that enabled more providers to offer virtual services. Now that many patients have been directly exposed to the benefits of telemedicine, their demand for it will last long past 2020.
2. Efficiency gains from temporary telemedicine implementations will be difficult to give up
Many healthcare providers have implemented telemedicine out of necessity in response to physical distancing guidelines. As practices begin to open up, many will find that those measures resulted in efficiency gains that they do not wish to eliminate.
In many cases, virtual care is more efficient for providers. Increased efficiency, lower costs, and additional revenue can motivate them to keep telemedicine in place even when it is no longer strictly necessary. Rather than being a compromise in response to crisis, the pandemic may have spurred providers to action, implementing a forced trial of a system that stands to benefit them long-term.
Any change with a financial incentive is likely to endure, but luckily telemedicine, when used properly and in the right areas, is not a case of cutting costs at the expense of patient care. This especially applies in areas where a treatment or consultation only requires a conversation, or where objective health data is being collected directly, where there is no clear advantage to seeing a patient in person.
Our Guide to Implementing Telemedicine goes further into the benefits for both providers and patients associated with remote care, and how to best take advantage of them.
3. Consolidation is leading to decentralized healthcare
The healthcare industry has consolidated in recent years, from tight partnerships enabled by digital technology to major mergers and acquisitions between companies. Those links may include traditional healthcare providers, but also supporting industries like insurance and consumer technology companies. The result is a gradual move toward blurring provider, payer, and patient.
This consolidation can take the form of entities that are almost entirely online. An early example is Mercy Virtual, a digital-only hospital with no beds that delivers care wherever it is needed. Mercy Virtual partners with other health systems, and leads a national virtual care consortium to share resources.
In sum, less emphasis on physical location, enabled by telemedicine, means more opportunities for partnerships to combine resources and better serve patients. Even smaller, independent practices can benefit from telemedicine on their own, but there may be more and more opportunities to partner with other health providers to collaborate on a decentralized care system.
4. Technology is making it easier to run a telepractice
The technology required for telemedicine has snuck up on most practitioners—in fact, it is likely already in most medical offices and in the homes of patients. For many types of health services, all it takes is a computer or smartphone on both ends of the conversation, and an Internet connection between them.
That said, up-and-coming technologies will make telemedicine even more powerful in the near future. A few examples include:
- Machine learning. More healthcare data is being collected than at any other time in history, and machine learning has the potential to turn that data into better health outcomes. Predictive algorithms will assist with assessment and diagnosis, then continue to provide patient-specific guidance. It is a natural fit with telehealth, because a lot more of the data that feeds machine learning can be collected if it is not restricted to data collected in a physical healthcare location.
- 5G cellular networks. Faster cell service means more people can access telemedicine from more locations, and more devices can be connected to cell networks. 5G also allows for private networks, which can be ideal in healthcare settings where privacy and uptime are critical. There is even preliminary testing for using 5G networks to perform remote surgery—telemedicine at its most advanced!
- Consumer wearables, sensors, and augmented reality. New consumer technologies will enhance the trends that are already in motion. Small wearable devices already collect information about exercise, heart rate, and ECG, and may soon add features like blood oxygen monitoring and temperature sensors. Augmented reality may go beyond videoconferences to make it feel like a physician and a patient are in the same room despite physical distance.
These technologies ensure that telemedicine will be even more viable for more use cases in the near future, and organizations that already have a telemedicine in place will be best able to quickly capitalize on new advancements.
5. Telemedicine solves problems and reaches populations that medicine currently struggles with
Some problems are actually better solved by telemedicine than in-person appointments. Some examples include:
- Reaching underserved people. Location-independent services can reach previously underserved populations, such as those in rural locations. “Medical deserts” can also exist in urban areas and disproportionately affect people of colour. Telemedicine may play a part in shrinking those disparities.
- Increasing preventive care. Most medicine is currently crisis-based—only very sick people seek out treatment. It is obviously preferable to prevent such emergencies from happening in the first place, and telemedicine can play a role by lowering the barrier to entry and facilitating quick, regular check-ins. Data collection and screening can even be automated on the provider’s part (such as automated cognitive assessments from CBS Health), so that interventions can be applied at the earliest sign of a problem.
- Collecting better patient history and context. A patient’s medical history makes up the majority of the information needed to diagnose problems and guide treatment, and most of it can be collected via videoconference. There may even be advantages to collecting that information remotely—a patient may be more relaxed and honest in a home setting, data from consumer technology (e.g. wearable devices) can provide an objective complement to an interview, and important information about living conditions may be gathered by observing patients in that environment.
Seeing a patient in person has its advantages, but there is an opportunity for telemedicine to fill gaps in the traditional model.
6. The COVID-19 pandemic will result in long-term issues that telemedicine is poised to help solve
Physical distancing is the most obvious consequence of COVID-19, and the main impetus for quickly implementing telemedicine, but there are other negative consequences that will last a very long time.
One long-term consequence of the pandemic that telemedicine is poised to help solve is an increased need for mental health services. Many mental health systems were already stressed before the pandemic, and the devastating combination of widespread illness, stress, and job loss, with no social contact as a safety net, is likely to lead to an even more serious global mental health crisis. That scale of trauma will not fade as soon as the economy opens back up. There will be pent-up demand for assistance with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and healthcare providers, especially in fields like psychology and psychiatry, will need to step up to the plate using whatever tools are best suited to reach as many patients as possible.
Then there are the direct health consequences of the virus itself. Researchers at Western University and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre are using Cambridge Brain Sciences to run a study that measures some of the brain health consequences of COVID-19. Survivors are encouraged to sign up, answer some questions, and take some cognitive assessments—all remotely, of course. See the COVID Brain Study website for more information.
Unlike many disasters, COVID-19 is not a discrete event with an end date. The pandemic got many healthcare organizations into telemedicine, but even if the virus disappeared tomorrow, the value of virtual care would not fade nearly as quickly.
Conclusions: Telemedicine is Part of the Future of Healthcare
Telemedicine has its niche—it will not be appropriate for every practice, and many types of treatments and patients will still require in-person services. As contact with patients becomes safer, the majority of medicine will likely still happen in physical locations.
However, now that many practices have explored telemedicine’s strengths, and as the healthcare industry evolves alongside technological advancements, telemedicine will remain a significant part of healthcare. Forward-looking healthcare practitioners will start implementing telemedicine today to stay ahead of the curve, because it is here to stay.
Additional References and Resources
- Implementing Telemedicine in 2020: Don't Fall Behind the (COVID-19) Curve
- Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic: Best Practices for Assessing Patients Remotely
- A Pandemic Benefit: The Expansion of Telemedicine
- Future Trends In Telemedicine
- How Telehealth Is Key In Solving The Global Mental Health Crisis
- What Are the Factors Driving Telehealth Growth in 2019?
- Zoom Psychiatrists Prep for COVID-19's Endless Ride