Telehealth is not a new trend but it has seen a revival during COVID-19 as more patients prefer to seek out medical advice from their doctors virtually. However, there are certain medical conditions which still require an in-person consultation, even though research shows that patient outcomes in telemedicine consultations are not inferior to those in standard care situations.
Telehealth is the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies. It allows long-distance patient and clinician contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admissions. When rural settings, lack of transport, a lack of mobility, decreased funding, or a lack of staff restrict access to care, telehealth may bridge the gap.
Telehealth is sometimes discussed interchangeably with telemedicine, the latter being more common than the former. Different organizations classify them separately. For instance, the United States Department of Health and Human Services states that the term telehealth includes “non-clinical services, such as provider training, and continuing medical education”, and that the term telemedicine means “remote clinical services. However, the World Health Organization uses telemedicine to describe all aspects of health care including preventive care.
Telehealth can be broadly classified into four main categories as shown but the benefits of each category vary and offer support in different ways depending on the patient’s needs:
- Live Video-Conferencing – a live, two-way video-based conference between a patient and their healthcare provider.
- Asynchronous Video (AKA Store-and-Forward) – electronic delivery of a patient’s documented health history outside of real-time, used by a healthcare provider
- Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) – collection of a patient’s health data from a patient or resident in one location that is then electronically sent to a healthcare professional (provider, nurse, etc.) for monitoring and review.
- Mobile Health (mHealth) – the use of smart devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.), and the health-based software apps developed for these devices, that supports continued healthcare
However during the pandemic where there is a greater focus on safe distancing measures and hygiene, telemedicine has proved popular as patients consult their doctors online for convenient medical care. It connects patients to doctors when non-urgent immediate care is needed, as well as follow-up care with both specialists and primary physicians.
According to the World Health Organization, 58 per cent of countries surveyed are now using telemedicine to replace in person consultations. The majority also rely on telemedicine to triage patients to determine the severity of illness.
To facilitate these virtual consultations, there are a variety of digital apps and services available. Although such digital solutions are seen as safe and convenient, particularly during a pandemic, telemedicine does have its limitations. Challenges include the general skepticism of online diagnosis and particular types of illnesses that require constant monitoring and review and lab tests done daily.
Industry watchers said the COVID-19 pandemic could significantly transform the telemedicine sector, and its role in healthcare systems globally. Digitalization is set to play a large part in the future of healthcare and telehealth is likely to feature prominently as a complementary part of their medical care.