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Why Telemedicine and Telehealth Are Here to Stay

Telehealth options significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Convenience and cost-savings are two key reasons why telehealth will be a permanent fixture of our new normal.

Telemedicine refers to the delivery of health services such as doctor visits via communication networks and is the practice of medicine using technology. This might include an initial consultation with a physician who could then provide a prescription or schedule an in-person visit if needed.

Telehealth is a broader term associated with the healthcare industry. Telehealth represents the actual connection of patients with doctors, doctors to doctors, and medical devices to doctors, via electronic telecommunications to provide care and services at-a-distance. Telehealth also includes nonclinical services such as provider training, administrative meetings, continuing medical education, and a data aspect, involving the collection and storing of data analytics.

The Explosion
Telemedicine and telehealth increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a McKinsey and Co. survey, 46% of U.S. consumers were using telehealth to replace canceled healthcare visits. That is up from only 11% in 2019. This explosion in telehealth adoption could mean up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spending stemming from virtual healthcare. Most patients and doctors who have used telehealth like it and will probably be more likely to broadly adopt it post-pandemic.

Importantly, telehealth data analytics are now disclosing trends that have further boosted interest in digital health, such as demographic disparities, population growth, inefficient health care systems, expanding mental health services, and ways to improve connectivity. Telehealth is also generating savings and efficiency over traditional doctor visits, allowing insurance and telecommunications companies to benefit and, hopefully, better control future cost increases.

Communication technologies have had growing potential and impact to address some of the challenges providing cost-effective and accessible quality healthcare services. Telemedicine utilizes communication technology to remove geographical barriers and further increase access to healthcare service providers. Rural and underserved communities find this is extremely beneficial for groups that historically have suffered from a general lack of access to quality healthcare.

GO eHealth
The World Health Organization (WHO) created the Global Observatory for eHealth (GOe) to examine the benefits by which information and communication access services can be used to support healthcare and a patient’s wellbeing. The GOe determines the status of multiple eHealth solutions, including telemedicine, at various geocentric levels, further providing the WHO’s Member States with detailed information and best practices, policies, and health standards related to eHealth.

Interestingly, the WHO and GOe findings from their worldwide surveys show that teleradiology currently has the highest rate of established global service at 33%. Roughly 30% of survey responding countries also have formed their own individual national agency for the promotion, support, and ongoing development of telemedicine. In many countries, scientific institutions are also involved with the development of telemedicine solutions in the absence of national telemedicine agencies or policies. Upwards of 50% of countries replied that scientific institutions were currently developing telemedicine solutions and 20% also reported having regular published evaluations on the uses of telemedicine within their respective countries since 2006.

Diminishing the Barriers of Resistance
These international evaluations are very important, as they help to increase education among emerging countries and to diminish barriers of resistance towards telemedicine. The most frequently cited barrier to global telemedicine implementation is the general perception that the cost to do so is too exorbitantly high. About 70% of countries polled indicated the need for more information on cost-effectiveness of telemedicine solutions. More than half of the survey responses were for more information related to actual infrastructure requirements necessary to implement telemedicine solutions.

A Digital Diagnosis
"The American public is getting a crash course in telehealth,” says Mei Wa Kwong, Executive Director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, a Sacramento, California–based nonprofit that promotes the use of technology in healthcare. “After this I think you're going to see people saying, ‘Why do I have to go to the office and sit for an hour and be exposed to sick people? During COVID-19 I took care of this virtually.’”