Is healthcare changing forever?

The current telehealth measures to safeguard patient and doctor health during the COVID-19 crisis may be here to stay, with some health professionals labelling it the “silver lining” of the pandemic.

Telehealth offers Australians access to essential health services via video or telephone in their home to “support self-isolation and quarantine policies to reduce risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19”.

On 30 March, the Australian government expanded the Medicare-subsidised services to help combat COVID-19. The arrangements are in place until 30 September.  However, the effectiveness of telehealth may change healthcare forever.

Telehealth has long been expected to revolutionise healthcare. But it was met with resistance by practitioners.

“Centuries of doctor-patient relations have centred on in-person communication and physical examination,” wrote Dr Rujuta Saksena, a hematology and oncology specialist in Summit, New Jersey. “We have been conditioned to view that as the norm, causing us to see telehealth as disembodied and impersonal, making us reluctant to embrace it.”

Bob Hudson, professor in the Centre for Health Services Studies at Kent University, wrote that “culture and whole system change” was necessary for telehealth to take its rightful place.

“The potential role for technology is not one of serving as an optional extra to normal business but rather a new paradigm to structure the way healthcare is conceived.”

The story was similar worldwide. In Australia, telehealth was most often used by patients in remote areas.

Now, it appears that COVID-19 could be creating the new paradigm.

Dr Saksena has labelled telehealth the “silver lining” of the coronavirus crisis.

“Many of us have been pleasantly surprised to discover the perks of telehealth during the unprecedented coronavirus crisis,” he wrote for statnews.

“Telehealth has many advantages, including keeping patients safe from possible exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, improving access to care, cutting healthcare costs, and contributing toward a greener earth by cutting down on car trips to see doctors in their offices. It also offers its own type of personal and lighthearted or even heartwarming connections.”

Dr Saksena has enjoyed consulting with patients in their pyjamas, with the pets they talk about so much, and while both parties sipped a cup of coffee. It is often a more intimate experience than a visit to the clinic.

Endocrinologist David Newman, from Fargo, North Dakota, who thought that telemedicine would be a “burden”, now finds it a boon. Medical investment website barrons.com claimed: “The coronavirus epidemic is catapulting telemedicine from the outskirts of healthcare to its core, and this may be the catalyst that pushes online care to the mainstream.”

In Australia, only two weeks ago, many general practitioners had no links on their clinic websites to telehealth services. But visit a large provider now, such as Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital or Monash Health, and there are dedicated pages with easy-to-follow instructions and links to their dedicated telehealth services. The page lays out what devices are compatible and what software the patient needs.

The Australian Digital Health Agency, which runs the My Health record system, is charged with “utilising technology to support and enhance a clinically safe and connected national health system”. It is promoting electronic prescriptions to assist telehealth social distancing measures.

“Electronic prescriptions are an alternative to paper prescriptions, and the solution being fast-tracked will see a unique QR barcode ‘token’ sent via an app (if they have one), SMS or email to the patient. This will allow people in self-isolation convenient access to their medicines and will lessen the risk of infection being spread in general practice waiting rooms and at community pharmacies.”

Ms Bettina McMahon, the agency’s interim CEO says: “The use of technology in healthcare has never been more critical, and Australia is in a better position than many other countries when it comes to digital health.

“Australians should take comfort that governments and healthcare providers have made significant investment in healthcare technology over the past 10 years. We are now able to fast-track adoption of this tech to respond to this pandemic in a 21st Century way.”

So, how far can this technological change affect the way we get our healthcare?

It is the job of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering to make the predictions. They expect the following by 2030:

  • Paper files will disappear, replaced by secure electronic health records
  • Health professionals will share patient information through universally accessible software.
  • Big data will enable accurate monitoring and prediction of population health trends.
  • Precision medicine will be more common, with prevention and treatment targeted to individuals.
  • Genetic testing and screening for preventable disease will become affordable.
  • Smart devices, mobile health, and telehealth – all linked through a digital health record – will enable a real-time holistic picture of a person’s health.
  • Technological solutions to the problems of distance and mobility will enable affordable healthcare access for more Australians, when and where we need it.

COVID-19 and the uptake of telehealth might see some of those changes arrive a lot sooner.

Have you embraced telehealth? Do you aim to continue to ‘visit’ your healthcare profession this way as appropriate?

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Related articles:
How to visit your doctor online via telehealth
Telehealth explained
Who will be hit hardest by coronavirus

Written by Will Brodie

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