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May 29, 2020 | Healthcare
Are we living in unprecedented times? I feel that unprecedented is an understatement. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has not only taken the world by surprise but disrupted our lives too. In such a crisis situation where everyone is under fire, businesses are putting strenuous efforts to keep their wheels turning by taking the digital route. Although COVID-19 has hugely impacted the population's health, technological tools can be adopted to help mitigate the impending impact. In the healthcare business, telehealth has become a viable and preferred solution to address the medical needs of patients. This, indeed, may become 'new normal' in the healthcare industry.
Telemedicine: The Force of Disruption Taking the Healthcare Sector by Storm
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes telemedicine, or telehealth, as delivering healthcare services to patients living in distant and remote locations, exchanging treatment-related information, and educating healthcare providers with latest research using ICTs. In simple words, telemedicine can be understood as ‘remote healing’. Virtual technologies such as telemedicine powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are providing optimal solutions to barriers such as poor road connectivity, economical burden, and geographical boundaries. In other words, telemedicine offers:
Economical and Optimal Care: Why Would You Not Want Telemedicine?
Evidence gathered from studies and experiences of different people has shown that telemedicine is more cost-effective than traditional face-to-face consultations. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a study on the impact of the Care Coordination/Home Telehealth (CCHT) program run by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) between 2003 and 2007. This study was done to facilitate care for veterans suffering from chronic diseases. It was revealed that the CCHT led to a 19% reduction in number of hospital admissions and 25% reduction in care counted in bed days.
Another study conducted by the Kentucky-based insurance company Humana found that on an average, each telemedicine session costs around $38, which is three times lower than the $114 price tag that comes with a regular visit to the doctor. These numbers highlight the most crucial and game-changing benefit of telemedicine: better access to quality medical care at affordable prices (even though it can never replace the experience or benefits of a physical visit to the doctor’s clinic). Added to this is the advent of frontier technologies such as AI that has enabled telemedicine providers to further enhance their offerings and service quality. These new-age tools have made it possible for doctors and patients to continuously monitor and collect real-time data of the patient’s health, allowing doctors to respond quickly to any alarming signs. Moreover, AI is playing an instrumental role in aiding physicians to manage chronic conditions in patients such diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Leveraging the power of these technologies, telehealth has broadened its ambit to include health education, remote clinical health care, and health administration.
However, the adoption of telemedicine tools has not been as smooth as one would hope. One reason is the massive digital divide, that is, the disparity in the degree of accessibility to the internet in urban and rural areas, among and within nations. The other reason, which is analyzed in the following section, is the obstacles created by regulatory norms that are impeding the progress of telemedicine.
Regulatory Barriers to Limit the Adoption of Telemedicine
Telemedicine can be seen, in a bizarre way, an aberration to traditional healthcare delivery mechanisms. Public insurance systems such as Medicare have rigidly resisted building frameworks and formulae to provide reimbursement to patients seeking telehealth-based treatments, despite their success and proven benefits. According to Jarrett Bauer, CEO of the New Jersey-based in-home care specialist Health Recovery Solutions (HRS), telehealth has led to a substantial reduction in hospital readmission rate. For example, after partnering with Valley Home Care for four years, HRS reported that its hospital readmission rate dropped to just 2%. Further, the Affordable Care Act, which sought to cover uninsured Americans, met with limited success as the government was unable to ensure immediate and affordable access to healthcare facilities to patients. As a result, in the U.S., the adoption of telehealth services is still slow predominantly due to the lack of reimbursement policies, further weakened by regulatory rigidities. Thus, despite the benefits and efforts from policymakers to encourage its adoption, telemedicine hasn’t been completely successful in strengthening its foothold in the U.S. People are still more comfortable with the direct interactions between a clinician and patient. Telehealth providers need to find innovative ways to pave in and get positive outcomes.
In Europe, a different set of hurdles have stymied the adoption of telemedicine. For instance, the European Commission’s ‘Digital Agenda for Europe’ aims to promote telehealth and increase access to quality healthcare. However, individual EU member states have complete discretionary rights regarding the incorporation of telemedicine services in their existing healthcare systems. Thus, widespread adoption of remote healing tools is still a pipe dream in Europe and some other countries.
Rural Populations: The Real Beneficiaries of Telehealth
Establishing universal health care for all has been one of the fundamental goals for governments across the globe. However, growth disparities between urban and rural areas have been the biggest impediment for authorities in attaining this goal. Telemedicine can provide the necessary means ensure indiscriminate access to quality healthcare. Thus, recognizing the potential of e-health and m-health, governments have been expanding their budgetary allocation to expedite the adoption of telemedicine platforms in rural areas. For example, in Australia, telehealth got a major boost in 2011, when the Government of Australia introduced a path-breaking policy explicitly dealing with telehealth funding. It was designed to generate varied funding opportunities through the country’s national healthcare program, Medicare. The policy was aimed at promoting the use of telehealth services, enhance interaction between health specialists in urban areas and clinicians in rural areas, and improve access to specialized health services to people in remote areas. In the US as well, the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth under the Health Resources & Services Administration runs programs such as the Telehealth Network Grant Program to deepen telemedicine’s presence in rural areas. The recent USD 200 million allocated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the Telehealth Program under the USD 2 trillion CARES Act passed by the Congress in April 2020 to combat the coronavirus crisis also deserves a mention in this context.
The urban-rural divide is all the more striking in developing nations, where not only is healthcare spending low, but also the digital divide is more pronounced. As a result, socioeconomic development in rural areas in these countries has always fallen behind the urban areas, primarily due to the lack of access to modern healthcare facilities. Take the example of India. According to the National Rural Health Mission Report, 31% of the people in rural areas have to travel approximately 30kms to seek healthcare, while 66% of India’s rural residents do not have access to critical medicines. In light of these realities, the adoption of telehealth services assumes prime importance as these services are not bound by geography and socio-cultural barriers. Further, regulatory authorities in the country are taking extraordinary measures to bring quality healthcare at villagers’ doorsteps. For instance, in 2018, the NITI Aayog devised a digital platform, the National Health Stack, aimed at digitizing citizens’ health records by 2022 in order to facilitate smooth implementation of telehealth across the country. India’s quest for attaining healthcare security for its rural populace can, therefore, be substantially bolstered through focused promotion and uptake of telemedicine tools and solutions.
The examples provided above clearly illustrate that the scope for telemedicine technologies is limitless in both developing and developed economies and it is set to widen even more as the COVID-19 contagion threatens to penetrate their rural landscape.
COVID-19: An Interesting Turning Point for Telemedicine
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020 has given rise to a health and economic crisis of historic proportions, unprecedented in its scale and unfathomable in its impact. With strict social distancing norms and nationwide lockdowns in place, physical interface with doctors and other medical professionals has become overly difficult, if not impossible. It is, therefore, not surprising that the uptake in telemedicine has spiked as the pandemic has intensified. The University of Pittsburgh’s pulmonary telemedicine program found that anticipating a sudden surge in coronavirus patients, there has been an almost daily rollout of new telemedicine products in the country. In the private sector, too, the demand for telehealth services has witnessed a meteoric rise since the pandemic broke. For instance, Eko Health, a Caifornia-based company marketing AI-powered digital stethoscopes, reported a 100% rise in demand in orders in March. Similarly, the New York-based telemedicine conglomerate, Teladoc Health, revised its revenue projections to USD 180 million for Q1 2020, stating that the company was providing over 20,000 virtual health visits per day across the US. Some other companies are doing their part to help with the crisis, which is also inadvertently stoking the uptake of telemedicine services. For example, Doctor on Demand, the telemedicine services provider based in San Francisco, partnered with the state of Massachusetts to deliver free telehealth services to the uninsured persons in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will Telemedicine Re-write the Future of Healthcare?
There is no room for equivocation about the importance of physical interface between a doctor and a patient. However, in times such as these, when the best weapon against the virus is physical distancing, the only option left for both doctors and patients is telehealth services. What’s notable is the marked shift in consumer preference, from demanding traditional interactions with doctors to choosing remote medication means of communicating with healthcare professionals. Moreover, the present health crisis has created an opportune moment for policymakers to incorporate flexibility in regulations so the responding to such unforeseen circumstances can be swift and efficient. Whether the regulatory changes introduced during the pandemic will remain or be rolled back, only time will tell. But, one thing can be stated for sure – that telemedicine is the next evolutionary step in the history of healthcare.
About the Author
Name: Shantanu Ayachit
Shantanu Ayachit is part of a talented team of content writers working in Fortune Business Insights™, one of the most promising market research firms in the industry. He has experience in developing quality content and is currently involved in writing articles, press releases, and blogs for the company. He is highly motivated and enjoys putting ideas and thoughts into words to enable the reader to experience a seamless perusal.