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A phone call a day keeps the doctor away?

This time last year, sitting in the waiting room of a GP surgery, surrounded by possibly contagious people, felt normal. However, as COVID-19 beckoned, and lockdowns were implemented, medical professionals had to quickly and efficiently edit how they provided care. Most closed their offices and began conducting their work remotely, utilising phone and video calls. This remotely-delivered healthcare phenomenon is known as telemedicine, and is rapidly becoming standard around the world.

2020 not only marked the arrival of remote consultations, but it also hailed a new era of comprehensive, remotely-delivered health care. From physiotherapy to acupuncture, health assessments to dentistry, telemedicine has taken on a whole new role. However, the rapid growth of telemedicine also raises important questions about its effectiveness. It also leaves us wondering, will telemedicine continue past lockdown?

Coronavirus came a-calling, and so did the doctors

Whilst video call consultations were first tested by doctors over television signals in Nebraska in 1964, telemedicine has only become mainstream in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Internationally, organisations such as the Centres of Disease Control and the World Health Organisation began to encourage medical professionals to reduce in-person consultations. This led to a stark increase in the number of medical professionals conducting telemedicine appointments. 

According to data from consultancy firm McKinsey, almost 50% of health care consumers in the United States in 2020 used telemedicine. This is a stark increase from 10% the previous year. Here in the UK, six out of every ten health care appointments in July 2020 were conducted over the phone. Even more were conducted over video call, according to the Royal College of GPs. Even this small sample of statistics serves to illustrate just how drastic the move towards telemedicine has been in the last year. Medical professionals around the world have implemented telemedicine in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, whilst also providing healthcare to all. However, this still leaves the question: is telemedicine an efficient and effective way to provide medical care after the pandemic is over?

Telemedicine-for-all

Many people in the medical field view telemedicine as a step towards modernising health care. It could help bring medicine in line with other industries, which have already put technology at the forefront of their customer interactions. Medical professionals could also use telemedicine to alleviate the burden caused by traditional health care provision. For instance, there have been suggestions that the provision of telemedicine is more cost-effective and resource-efficient than traditional medicine. However, as telemedicine is a newly-mainstream service, studies on it are limited. Hopefully, as telemedicine is brought to the forefront of medicine, research will increase.  

Telemedicine may also be the solution to providing health care for all. It enables easily accessible care for patients that would otherwise struggle to meet their needs. This includes people with reduced mobility, long working hours, or those in remote areas. Furthermore, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, telemedicine reduces the potential danger posed by a doctor’s visit. It prevents potentially at-risk, or otherwise healthy, people from coming into contact with contagious patients in doctors surgeries or hospitals. 

Is telemedicine-for-all really for all?

Despite the efficiency and ease telemedicine brings to some patients and doctors, it still poses a severe threat to others. Technology is often a struggle for elderly people. A remote consultation could prove to be a stressful and unproductive experience, putting lives at risk. A 2020 study estimated that 38% of people 65-and-over in America were unprepared for video consultations. This was due to a lack of experience with the necessary technology. A further 20% were unable to have productive telephone consultations as a result of dementia or hearing difficulties. This presents a large obstacle for the widespread implementation of telemedicine, particularly as elderly people account for 25% of doctor’s visits every year in the US. If the most vulnerable members of society struggle to access telemedicine, how can this be considered an effective method of health care provision?

Furthermore, several medical professionals, particularly GPs, have raised concerns that the removal of in-person interaction will diminish doctor-patient relationships. These relationships are often key in providing effective care, helping patients confide in their doctors about their needs and concerns. Additionally, the lack of in-person health assessments could increase the risk of medical professionals failing to notice or misdiagnosing conditions. 

Will we ever return to the waiting room?

Whilst there are benefits and pitfalls to the implementation of telemedicine, one clear question is still left unanswered. When the pandemic is long over, and lockdowns cease to exist, will telemedicine remain? A recent report by the British Medical Journal suggests that telemedicine has now come too far to ever return to its previous irrelevance. Doctors who had previously been against the implementation of telemedicine have now used it, and experienced its successes.

The Cleveland Clinic included telemedicine on its annual top 10 medical innovations predicted for 2021. It stated that new policy, increased regulation and widespread application of telemedicine as a result of COVID-19 will help it to develop into an increasingly effective method of health care.  Continued improvements and adaptations made for vulnerable populations should aid in keeping telemedicine at the forefront of medical care. By (almost) all accounts, telemedicine is here to stay. 

Tags: access to medicine, covid-19, medicine, technology, telemedicine

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