Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic transformed every aspect of our lives and healthcare is no exception. Virtual care or telehealth usage increased 38-fold between February 2020 – 2021. Both, patients, and healthcare professionals are experiencing the advantages and disadvantages of telemedicine. Here is a review of the issues at hand.
Telemedicine in 2021
Telemedicine or telehealth allows healthcare providers to offer patients diagnosis and treatment remotely. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it has been crucial in allowing patients and doctors to interact whilst avoiding personal contact.
According to McKinsey, telehealth claims increased 78 times between February and April 2020. Nearly one in three consultations took place via telehealth platforms during that month. Following this spike, usage settled somewhat over the following months. However, even after more than six months of stabilization, the number remains 38% higher than before the pandemic.
Experts believe that improving consumer and provider attitudes, regulatory changes, and investment is contributing to the sustained growth of the sector.
Despite its growing popularity, telemedicine is facing several challenges. Concerns include the safety of sensitive medical data exchanged by patients and their providers over potentially unsecured internet connections. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects patient data. The advent of telemedicine makes it necessary to adapt the legal framework to avoid any data breach or security in compliance.
Consequently, the telehealth policy is still developing. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided flexibility for telehealth reimbursement under the Medicare system. Waivers allowed physicians to practice from home. The patient’s location also no longer limited the care physicians could provide. To date, it is not clear if these emergency provisions will remain in place.
Benefits of Telemedicine for Patients
Patients are embracing telemedicine for a wide range of reasons.
Telemedicine’s popularity grew exponentially in 2020. At the time, slowing down the spread of the coronavirus was a major driver behind the growth. This benefit extends far beyond the pandemic. Visiting a doctor’s office means exposing yourself to different illnesses and infections, which could potentially make you worse.
Accessing healthcare through telehealth platforms can be more efficient than in-person appointments. Patients save time and money if they avoid traveling to doctor’s offices. As a patient, you can get medical care at a time that is convenient to you. You don’t need to leave the comfort and safety of your home; this is especially advantageous for mobility-challenged and elderly patients.
Easy access and reduced cost also help more people benefit from preventive care through remote monitoring devices and wearables, like Harris Healthcare Vitals360 and other tools.
Benefits of Telemedicine for Healthcare Providers
Telemedicine does not only benefit patients but also their doctors and other healthcare staff.
Like patients, healthcare providers can lower their exposure to viruses and illnesses by seeing patients remotely.
Providers may benefit from lower overhead costs if they spend less time seeing patients in their offices. Without a high level of patient traffic, doctors need fewer medical and admin support staff.
On the other hand, offering telemedicine services can open a new revenue stream for healthcare providers as they see more patients in less time. Consulting remotely also creates an opportunity for more flexible appointment times.
Disadvantages of Telemedicine for Patients
From a patient’s perspective, there are a few drawbacks.
If you require urgent or emergency care, telemedicine may delay your treatment. While doctors can provide information over a video call or an exchange of text messages, they cannot directly administer care.
Another potential issue is the quality of the diagnoses you receive digitally. To be effective, telemedicine requires patients to describe their symptoms clearly. Not everyone can do this sufficiently to allow clinicians to make a diagnosis. If patients forget to mention one or more of their symptoms, their diagnosis may be lacking.
Moreover, some insurance providers are not yet covering telemedicine services. Whether or not you are eligible to access remote care depends on the state you live in. Because provisions are changing regularly, it is worth reconfirming with your insurer before using these services.
Disadvantages of Telemedicine for Healthcare Providers
Clinicians face disadvantages with telemedicine as well.
Gaining a thorough understanding of a patient’s condition usually involves a physical examination by a doctor. This lack of physical exams is one of the biggest drawbacks of telemedicine. In addition, seeing patients in person allows doctors to learn more about their condition than they can via video or phone.
Technological platforms to facilitate successful telemedicine consultations continue to develop. Therefore, it is not easy for clinicians to decide which product to invest in. Weak mobile signals or internet connections can also hamper the success of patient consultations.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Telemedicine in Rural Areas
Telemedicine has huge potential in rural, remote areas where doctors and patients need to make long journeys for in-person appointments. Patients who struggle to arrange transport or need care outside of office hours benefit from digital access to doctors, too.
In addition, telemedicine is useful in helping doctors and patients monitor the progression of or recovery from several conditions. One study drew promising conclusions concerning heart disease. Patients sent text messages with weekly and monthly updates. A cardiologist assessed the information remotely and provided personalized recommendations. All communications relied on short text messages.
This type of self-testing would benefit patients in rural settings. They could avoid long trips and delays between appointments.
On the other hand, telemedicine continues to depend on strong, reliable internet or phone connections. Unfortunately, many rural areas continue to lag compared to larger cities in this respect.
Above all, rural patients need to make a judgment call whether a remote appointment is sufficient for them. If they make the wrong call, they may face a longer wait for an ambulance or other professional help.
Key Takeaways from This Article
- Patients and healthcare providers have embraced telemedicine since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
- The large number of telemedicine benefits means that the field will continue to grow post-pandemic.
- Telemedicine has several limitations. As a result, its biggest potential lies in complementing in-person appointments.
- Telemedicine can lower the barriers of access to healthcare for those with mobility issues, elderly patients, and those based in rural areas.
- Regulatory bodies and other stakeholders still need to finalize a permanent framework for the provision of telemedicine services.