How Can Telemedicine Help Us During COVID-19 and Beyond?
Health systems all over the world have been stretched to their limits as COVID-19 continues to spread. In the US, new surges of infections in states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida indicate that this pandemic is nowhere close to being reigned in.
Given that there is still a strong chance COVID-19 will wreak more havoc, hospitals and medical professionals must find ways to ensure minimal disruption to healthcare services.
Telemedicine or telehealth — healthcare service delivered through the aid of telecommunication tools and new automated technologies — could be instrumental in helping achieve that goal.
What opportunities would be possible through telemedicine?
Increased productivity for medical staff
Remote care services can lead to more efficient processes. In the traditional set-up, nurses would be physically present to check on patients’ vital signs and dosages while staying on top of other routine medical tasks. With telemedicine, that wouldn’t be necessary anymore.
Patients — when supplied with the right equipment and software tools — can collect key information and measurements themselves from the comfort of their homes. Data on blood sugar levels and heart rate, for instance, could be automatically transmitted to nurses working in a central monitoring facility. For the elderly, the support of a caregiver or family member may be needed to ensure accurate measurements.
Such a scenario could allow nurses to manage many more patients at any given time.
In addition, instead of relying on paper prescriptions, medical professionals can use medication e-prescribing. Through the latter, health providers wouldn’t need to produce physical copies of prescriptions. This has several benefits, including:
- Reduction of medication errors – Through e-prescriptions you can avoid instances of miscommunication due to illegible handwriting. Getting the wrong medicine or dosage can put a person at risk of serious side effects.
- Medication adherence for patients – By utilizing easily accessible e-prescriptions, providers can track whether or not patients are complying with recommended dosages.
Improved health outcomes
Despite the best efforts of nurses, doctors, and other medical staff to stay on top of everything, if they have too much on their plate, failures are bound to happen.
With telemedicine solutions, facilities can utilize automated monitoring systems that can flag urgent patient issues. Since medical staff wouldn’t be overstretched due to several routine and administrative tasks, they can allocate valuable time to serious cases where hands-on intervention is needed.
Some studies conducted in the US even point to lower mortality rates. In one instance, there was a 26 percent reduction in the death rate of ICU patients subjected to telemonitoring.
In addition, the high transmissibility of COVID-19 puts a lot of pressure on hospitals and clinics to enforce social distancing measures. The ability to deliver care services remotely removes a huge burden in several ways:
- Reduced contact between staff and infected patients.
- Less likelihood of infected patients coming into contact with people as they travel to the hospital.
- More capacity to accommodate non-COVID patients who are afflicted with equally serious conditions.
- Spending reductions on personal protective equipment, especially those that are one-time use.
Challenges to overcome
While telemedicine gives medical professionals and the general public several reasons to be excited, there are still some barriers that stand in the way of ideal implementation.
- Reimbursements – Uninsured patients may not be in the best position to benefit from telemedicine. Existing rules and guidelines on telemedicine reimbursement may not be as flexible. Governments may need to step in and provide financial support to uninsured individuals. Additionally, government can help ease the rules on telemedicine reimbursement (e.g. disregard the issue of location when doctors are diagnosing and treating patients).
- Data privacy issues – Current rules on handling patient information may severely limit telemedicine capabilities — specifically the type of information that can be transmitted and shared digitally. Regulators must update relevant laws quickly to ensure that health providers can get the most out of telemedicine. However, this doesn’t mean that patient confidentiality should be abandoned entirely. The idea is for existing laws to keep up with recent developments and new realities.
- Hospital bureaucracy – Many hospitals have been relatively behind in adopting new technologies, especially disruptive ones. Whether it’s low IT budget allocation or continued reliance on outdated computer systems, hospital managers and executives must hurdle these challenges and find strategies to fast-track telemedicine integration.
- Better awareness and knowledge – Despite its touted benefits, telemedicine is still a new approach which patients need to grow accustomed to. As with any new system, there will be many people who will question and doubt it. It’s on the medical industry and government to provide reliable information about the benefits of telemedicine adoption.
The state of healthcare post-pandemic
It would be a mistake to abandon innovative efforts after COVID-19 subsides. Whatever progress is made on this front, healthcare providers and the government must do everything they can to maintain the momentum. Investments in hospitals’ IT capabilities, telemedicine staff training, and the adoption of new policies must continue.
Squandering the gains made during this crisis may potentially create more problems for us in the future.