As the novel coronavirus continues to sweep across the globe, many countries and territories have implemented strict public health measures to curb the transmission of the virus. The lockdown orders and travel restrictions crippled social activities and business for much of 2020. For most hospitals, the rapidly-spreading outbreak meant that doors had to be closed for non-urgent cases and non-COVID-19-related illness, both to reduce unnecessary exposure to the virus and to shunt healthcare resources toward COVID-19 treatment.
With pent-up demand for non-COVID-19-related healthcare needs and the surge of COVID-19 diagnostic and treatment needs, healthcare sellers pivoted care strategies to provide treatment to their patients across the world amid the restrictions. As a result, the pandemic launched a rapid uptake and adoption of digital solutions to meet these healthcare needs.
Healthcare providers swiftly leveraged telemedicine solutions to ramp up care delivery amid the crisis. By April 2020, telemedicine consultations grew from less than 1 percent of primary care visits to nearly 43.5 percent. The current trajectory of virtual care has created new models of care that would transform medical care after the crisis.
Here are some applications of telemedicine during the pandemic that could potentially transform healthcare going forward.
Ramping up Diagnostics
Inadequate testing was a major obstacle in the fight against the virus for many countries. Some countries could surmount this challenge by leveraging telemedicine offerings. Patients who have been exposed to the virus could be easily identified and tracked, with test kits sent to their locations.
One telemedicine app that is making this happen is Teleclinic. Based in Munich, Germany, Teleclinic began as a startup focused on improving access to healthcare, especially for residents in remote parts of the country. As the pandemic made its way to Europe, the app saw a 60% increase in its user base within a few months, with a focus on ramping up diagnostics and treatment of infected persons.
Users fill out questionnaires on the app, with questions designed in line with the World Health Organization’s criteria for coronavirus diagnosis. Based on the answers given, users with a high risk of the disease were sent test kits to their homes, facilitating early detection and isolation.
This development has pushed more healthcare players to integrate telediagnosis models. This would transform the diagnostic process, with tools that would aid clinicians to make accurate diagnoses even without physically being with the patient. This, in turn, would help patients find quick access to care, eliminating the barriers of long waits, distance, and high cost of care.
Patient Monitoring and Treatment
Telemedicine platforms also allow healthcare providers to offer treatments and follow-up care virtually to patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms. The model allows users who have tested positive or being exposed to the virus to record their symptoms daily and transmit them to their providers via the app for review and appropriate recommendations.
In Indonesia, Halodoc, one of the country’s largest telemedicine platforms, offers virtual care and remote monitoring to patients with mild symptoms. The company partners with local pharmacies, laboratories, and ride-hailing services to facilitate care remotely. Through the ride-hailing option, Halodoc also offers drive-through rapid COVID-19 testing to residents, with follow-up care conducted entirely on the app afterward.
Patients who have been discharged from the hospitals and are recovering from COVID-19 also do not have to return to the hospital for follow-up, risking re-exposure. Using telehealth services, doctors can check on these patients and make necessary recommendations, driving the care continuum.
In Thailand, Samitivej Hospital Group, a private hospital network launched a one-stop Virtual Hospital app, that would provide teleconsultation and medicine delivery during and after the pandemic. Bumrungrad Hospital, Thailand's largest medical tourism hub also expanded its telemedicine offerings in the wake of the pandemic, providing access to care for millions of international patients across the world.
Hospitals and healthcare providers that offer telemedicine for remote patient monitoring leverage innovative technologies to evaluate patient’s treatment progress. For example, doctors can easily evaluate diabetics on insulin or on continuous glucose check via closed-loop digital systems that allow healthcare providers to receive these reports in real-time. In turn, patients can also receive instant messages from their doctors on these apps about treatment readjustments and other recommendations.
Reduced Burden on Healthcare Resources and Workforce
In the wake of the health crisis, hospital and ICU bed spaces across several countries reached full capacities. Countries even created makeshift medical centers to expand their surge capacities to handle the pandemic. At the same time, elective care treatments and procedures were either suspended or offered on telehealth platforms. So instead of using up resources to provide care for thousands of patients with varying conditions within hospital buildings, doctors can provide care to patients—even COVID-19 patients—who do not need to present to the doctor’s office.
Healthcare providers are now increasingly adopting this model for the post-pandemic era, saving hospital resources and time for the most critical healthcare needs. Patients can now be triaged based on the severity of their symptoms before they present; those who can receive adequate care remotely will access their doctors virtually, leaving the traditional hospital visits for more critical cases.
As a result, governments are ramping up partnerships with telehealth companies to help decongest hospitals and emergency rooms, and also limit avoidable exposure to health care risks amid the pandemic.
For instance, in West Java, Indonesia, local authorities have set up a telehealth platform for its nearly 50 million residents to create an alternative healthcare model to help residents access care without visiting the doctor’s office. Thailand has also launched a telemedicine programme at 32 hospitals in rural areas in eight provinces to increase access to swift care.
Access to Mental Health Services
The coronavirus crisis has no doubt caused a mental health pandemic. The economic devastation that came with the lockdown restrictions, as well as the continuous social isolation and increasing deaths, have led many to poor mental health situations. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse have all increased exponentially during the pandemic, creating an opportunity for telehealth to facilitate care for many.
With advancements in AI and machine learning models, telehealth firms have developed chatbots that evaluate a user’s mental health and their risk of suicide. Using preset questions, these chatbots can assess a user’s mental health, schedule therapy sessions with mental health professionals, and provide access to resources that can help a user on their road to recovery.
Telemedicine offerings also eliminate the stigma associated with mental health problems, allowing patients to access care and treatment virtually. Telehealth apps such as Amwell, MDLive, and Teladoc offer virtual counseling, psychotherapy, and connect users to support groups to help them deal with mental health issues.
Telemedicine: Changing the Future of Healthcare
Telemedicine has proven to be an effective and safe platform for patients to access healthcare during this global crisis. This digital healthcare model facilitates diagnostics and treatments for patients miles away from their providers, and has gained enormous traction amid the pandemic. This rapid adoption of telehealth will transform the future of healthcare, remodeling patient care to ensure swift delivery of quality healthcare while mitigating unnecessary health risks and eliminating traditional barriers to care.