The post-pandemic future of telemedicine

The post-pandemic future of telemedicine

March 18, 2021

Table of contents

Inga Shugalo

Healthcare Analyst

In March 2020, when the pandemic broke out in the US, telemedicine made a valuable alternative to regular in-person visits. In this case, telemedicine apps helped reduce the risk of exposure to the virus for both patients and clinicians with no harm to the quality of services.

However, as the epidemiological situation was gradually stabilizing, the use of e-consultations via telemedicine started to fall:

Telemedicine in the US in 2020

Despite the positive epidemiological trends, the rapid decrease in virtual consultations bothers providers:

Organizations were at 5% telehealth visits and that went up to 95% [early in the pandemic] and now it's down to 25%.

Dr. John Halamka

Dr. John Halamka

President, Mayo Clinic Platform

So what’s next? Will the tool remain relevant or will it turn into an unwise investment with patients fully returning to offline care services? We’ll try to figure it out.

To do so, we need to look at the changes healthcare systems have gone through and their effect on the key industry actors—patients and clinicians.

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Post-pandemic healthcare: behavioral changes

The turmoil and uncertainty of the pandemic have impacted patients dramatically. With clinicians overloaded with emergency cases, patients with mild symptoms or chronic conditions were asked to use various telehealth solutions to monitor their health independently and interact with their physicians via telemedicine apps.

Though clinicians worried about patients’ acceptance of the new work mode, the reality proved these worries to be ungrounded:

We were all concerned that there would be a barrier to human connection using virtual care and patients have spoken up loud and clear and said that, while they were concerned about that too, that is not the case.

Chrissy Daniels

Chrissy Daniels

MS, Chief Experience Officer at Press Ganey

Press Ganey’s survey called The Rapid Transition to Telemedicine: Insights and Early Trends covering 3.5 million patients revealed that telemedicine visits may reach similar patient experience ratings to in-person visits. What’s more, about 90% of patients consider a positive virtual visit a valid reason for recommending the provider. So how did providers manage to achieve these impressive results?

All credits in this regard go to clinicians and IT health developers. Thanks to the user-friendly approach, physicians can access a telemedicine-ready EHR right within a telemedicine app. Thus, clinicians can work with the EHR maintaining eye contact with patients, Press Ganey reports. Amidst the pandemic, healthcare professionals tried their best to build trust and good rapport with patients during those e-consultations.

Patients have grown quite enthusiastic about other telehealth solutions—remote patient monitoring tools and health wearables. Armed with a set of digital tools measuring their health parameters, users are willing to disclose their data to providers with a trustworthy strategy for healthcare data governance as well as manage their health proactively.  Surprisingly, as Deloitte reports in their 2021 Global Health Care Outlook, 75% of health tracker users state the tools have helped modify their habits and behavior at least partly.

There’s been a change in patients’ attitude to care, too. They no longer look for clinicians to instruct them on what to do to recover from an illness. Now they favor timely prevention, so they welcome clear educational materials and proceed with their health management independently. In other words, patients aim to act as providers’ full-scale partners in care management.

This goal aligns with providers’ interests—they seek to provide personalized care with the focus on timely prevention. So has clinicians’ behavior changed to facilitate the transition from reactive to preventive care? Given the scale telemedicine and other remote healthcare technologies have achieved, the changes have been inevitable.

In their 2019 study, Deloitte predicted the steady rise of technologies in healthcare and the subsequent evolution of the physician. The researchers defined eight archetypes of the physician of the future:

Clinicians of the future

Deloitte’s researchers stated that this transition would take 5-10 years. However, the pandemic might have sped up the process considerably. Statista reports that over 70% of young medical professionals (aged 40 and below) favor technologies and acknowledge their significance for patient engagement strategies that result in better patient outcomes and experiences:

Clinicians' attitude to digital tools

Nevertheless, despite the irreversible behavioral changes in patients and clinicians, the use of tech has been shrinking for months. It means providers should work on designing new applications for telemedicine that may retain their use rates after the pandemic. And so they do.

We’ve looked into some telemedicine applications that may stay relevant out of the pandemic context, meeting the needs of various patient populations and thus supporting digital transformation in healthcare.

Removing care access barriers with telemedicine

Telemedicine and other telehealth technologies have helped clinicians to hop over care access barriers and deliver quality care to the so-called “non-emergency patients.” This group includes very different healthcare consumers, from relatively healthy people to chronic condition patients who need to visit their clinicians regularly to prevent adverse health events. Luckily, telemedicine helps remove care access barriers for these patient populations.

A new level of care in remote locations

Telehealth technologies have also marked a new era for patients residing in remote or rural areas.

Small rural hospitals have long suffered from the shortage of healthcare professionals. In this dire situation, telemedicine may make a viable care assistant both for patients and clinicians via enabling a virtual hospital. Patients can schedule a virtual consultation with reputable experts from across the country. For clinicians, virtual meetings with fellow doctors may serve as a powerful means of improving professional skills and bringing their approaches up to speed with the modern trends in their care specialty.

Fortunately, patients coming from remote areas like telemedicine just as much as urban patients. A 2019 survey on life in rural America found out that about 90% of rural patients were satisfied with their telemedicine experience.

AR/VR-enhanced telemedicine

For some chronic condition patients, enhancing telemedicine with AR and VR presented a life-changing experience. Delivered with the help of an AR/VR headset, telemedicine helps manage diverse conditions, from psychological and neurological disorders to chronic pain, substance abuse, and cancer. Such tools may also assist with recovery after a stroke or a brain injury, PTSD therapies, and more.

To assist vulnerable patients in their condition management efforts, XRHealth launched several virtual clinics across the US. Under the umbrella of such a virtual clinic, patients may connect anonymously with clinicians and/or fellow patients to share their experience or treatment methods. If a patient uses the tool for therapy, clinical staff may observe what they see and change settings and the treatment process in real time if needed.

Improved experience for healthy consumers

Telemedicine also proved its value to those who book medical appointments rarely. It helps relatively healthy individuals feel more comfortable sharing their symptoms and other sensitive information related to their health. Researchers from Boston, MA, went through over 35K telehealth visits from 20 states and found that 87% of e-visits touched upon embarrassing health issues with urinary tract infection topping the list (53%).

Telemedicine helps busy patients solve a poignant issue of schedule clashes, as such people prefer visiting doctors after work while providers tend to close their doors relatively early. With telemedicine, people can choose virtually any suitable time slot and get a qualified consultation right from the comfort of their home.

A new spin on clinical trials

The COVID-19 pandemic hit clinical trials hard. Today the problem is not only about dropouts, a persistent clinical trial challenge. In 2020, the top issue was patient enrollment.

In April 2020, US enrollment figures fell by 83% in all therapeutic areas in comparison with those in April 2019. It is no wonder as patients refused to visit trial sites fearing the potential exposure to COVID-19.

In this regard, virtual trials supported by telemedicine and remote patient monitoring may become a viable alternative to traditional trials. The technologies may help reduce the rate of dropouts and improve enrollment, as patients won’t need to travel to their trial site regularly.

With all that in mind, industry leaders such as Deloitte and Castor, develop clinical trial management software which are vendor-agnostic and allow patients to employ their own devices in the trial. For providers, the platforms offer big data analytics solutions for healthcare for processing multi-source data and sourcing valuable insights. They also provide diverse forms for patient experience analysis.

Streamlined on-premises care

Telemedicine may help improve patient experience on-premises. If a patient requires an appointment with another doctor for some clarifications, the tool may spare them the need to wait for hours or days. In fact, their physician may connect to a colleague via a telemedicine app and ask for a consultation right away.

Telemedicine may also streamline care delivery at emergency departments. There are smart hospitals that have introduced telecarts—devices that offer an immediate professional assessment. Moreover, telemedicine may allow providers to increase their staff on-premises, attracting out-of-office clinicians to running telecart consultations.

As we can see, telemedicine may facilitate many of providers’ tasks, from offering quality care anywhere anytime to reducing the risk of exposure to viruses and upscaling providers’ staff in critical situations. However, some challenges persist.

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Heads-up about hazards

On the flip side, the ubiquitous availability of telemedicine may hurt both providers and patients. It’s the common fault of connectivity—not all connections are equally secure.

Wishing to chat with their clinicians from their favorite cafe, patients might start their telemedicine app connecting via a public Wi-Fi.  Besides, patients and their physicians may simply lose their mobile devices, which may put sensitive information under threat.

Luckily, it is possible to prevent such situations, and the key measure here is education. Here are some tips:

  • Providers should inform clinicians about key security threats and the ways to recognize them.
  • Providers should promote the use of VPN for daily operations that require an internet connection.
  • Clinicians should learn some cyber-hygiene practices. They include updating apps and operating systems, enabling quality anti-virus software, and scanning their devices. These tasks should be performed regularly.

It would also be reasonable to pass these guidelines along to patients. Following them doesn’t require advanced tech knowledge, just basic computer skills and common sense.

A wrap-up

In spite of the current drop in the use of telemedicine, the concerns about the technology’s relevance are far-fetched. From patients’ perspective, access to quality care right from the comfort of their home is too substantial a benefit to let it go. Besides, telemedicine apps allow patients to connect with their physicians anytime and from any place, which facilitates health management.

What’s more, providers don’t limit care provision to temporary ill patients. The tool helps them to reach out to vulnerable patients for whom the solution may be valuable throughout their lifetime. This handy tool is also employed to streamline some vital clinical processes (trials, emergency care, and more) to deliver a better patient experience and outcomes whenever possible. With all these use cases in front of us, we may safely conclude that telemedicine is here to stay.