SINGAPORE: Telehealth has been given a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more patients feel comfortable seeking out medical services and seeing their doctors online.
Studies worldwide have shown that patient outcomes in telemedicine consultations are not inferior to those in standard care situations, but some medical conditions still need to be assessed by doctors - in person.
Telehealth is the use of digital and telecommunications technology to access health care services remotely. It’s a marriage of medicine, and technology.
Telemedicine is a subset of telehealth. Using telemedicine, patients can consult doctors virtually.
Doctors can then diagnose conditions, and prescribe treatments.
For healthcare systems, it is a way of doing more, with less.
Dr Christina Low is CEO and co-founder of HiDoc, a telemedicine app from Singapore. She said that when telehealth was first created, it was to treat patients in remote places with little access to health facilities.
“But increasingly today, we see it becoming more of a tool for convenient medical care. It connects patients to doctors when non-urgent immediate care is needed, as well as follow-up care with both specialists and primary physicians,” she said.
Aside from access, the use of telehealth can also amplify the capacity of clinicians and healthcare networks.
This is especially useful for healthcare systems that do not have enough clinicians per head of population.
THE RISE OF TELEMEDICINE
Telemedicine has been used in the medical sector for a number of years now, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, social distancing became the new normal and people around the world turned online for most activities including, seeing a doctor.
Besides convenience, telemedicine also reduces the risk and exposure to infection.
"The COVID crisis certainly accelerated telehealth as it provides real opportunity to link patients with expert clinicians without the need for travel or physical contact and that increases the capacity of clinicians, and obviously reduces the risk of infection," said Mr Rob Walton, president and CEO of GE Healthcare's business across ASEAN, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In one survey by Mercer, 78 per cent of respondents from Asian countries said they were ready to use digital healthcare, compared with 66 per cent globally.
So it was not surprising that when the pandemic hit, telemedicine apps in many markets saw big spikes in demand, industry insiders said.
"What has happened with COVID-19 is that it has removed that behavioural and economic barrier for a more widespread adoption of telemedicine," said Dr Low.
Ms Renee McGowan, CEO for Mercer in Asia, said that one of those markets was China, where about 50 per cent of medical care moved online.
"That really changed the dynamic of healthcare and added additional services that just weren't there before," she said.
According to the World Health Organization, 58 per cent of countries surveyed are now using telemedicine to replace in person consultations.
The majority also use telemedicine to triage patients to determine the severity of illness.
But while such digital solutions are seen as safe and convenient, particularly during a pandemic, telemedicine does have its limitations.
One concern is how an online diagnosis compares with a face-to-face consultation with a doctor.
"The biggest contributing factor for the lack of adoption is probably the scepticism of online diagnosis," said Dr Low.
"But it's important also to sort of highlight that when the doctors are providing services using telemed modalities, they must ensure that they are providing the same quality and standard of care," she added.
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Dr Ravinder Singh Sachdev, deputy chief medical informatics officer at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, added that studies worldwide have shown that patient outcomes in telemedicine consultations are not inferior to those in standard care situations.
At the same time, he added, "not everybody can benefit from telehealth".
"If they've got significant acute illnesses that need constant monitoring and review and lab tests done daily, for example, not necessarily beneficial to have it done via telemedicine," said Dr Ravinder, who is helping to drive the National Healthcare Group’s Care Transformation and Telemedicine projects.
"These tend to be very easily managed via telemedicine," he said.
FUTURE OF HEALTHCARE
Industry watchers said the COVID-19 pandemic could radically change the telemedicine sector, and its role in healthcare systems around the world. The key is to figure out how to sustain the momentum built during the pandemic.
“The future of healthcare is certainly digital. The increase that we've seen in telemedicine has to a large extent been forced upon people because of lockdowns. But it's not going away," said Ms McGowan.
"What we do know is that once individual consumers start using digital tools, including digital healthcare tools, they continue using them. So we fully expect that individual consumers will continue to use telemedicine as a complementary part of their medical care,” she added.