Telemedicine During COVID-19: Benefits, Limitations, Burdens, Adaptation
The coronavirus outbreak has given telehealth technology the catalyst it needs to become a mainstream form of healthcare. By all accounts, telemedicine is helping the healthcare system fight against the coronavirus. But what about the limitations that are inherent in such technology? How quickly are healthcare centers adapting to a drastically changed landscape? This blog explores all that and more.
Telemedicine and COVID-19
There is no denying that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the healthcare system. The unprecedented nature of the outbreak has prompted the healthcare industry to make use of telemedicine technology. The purpose of this technology is to enable healthcare providers and caregivers to better respond to:
- Patients who have contracted or may have contracted COVID-19.
- Chronic patients who need to regularly touch base with healthcare providers.
So far, the technology has been a breakthrough in terms of practical digital health applications. Its use cases are broad and varied, and it is helping the healthcare system handle the pandemic better. But the fact remains that digital healthcare technologies are limited in the context of a global pandemic. At the same time, many argue that this telehealth technology may even overwhelm an already strained healthcare system unless used efficiently. While hospitals are quickly adapting to it as a matter of necessity, this blog explores:
- The Use of Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Crisis
- Mitigating Exposure to Frontline Health Workers
- Surging Demand for Direct-to-Consumer Telemedicine
- Changing Policy-Level Perceptions to Telemedicine
- How COVID-19 Limits Telemedicine’s Efficacy
- Underequipped Hospitals and Private Practices
- A Lack of Endpoints Within Hospitals
- Is Telemedicine Overloading Healthcare Providers?
Let’s examine these areas in more detail below.
The Use of Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Crisis
The global pandemic puts everyone at risk. The key to slow down the spread of COVID-19 lies in precaution, prevention, and treatment. This is exactly where telemedicine is contributing to the solution. What this technology does is bridge the gap between health systems, physicians, and patients. Telemedicine helps to divide resources equitably between patients that need critical care and those that can receive treatment at home.
It allows symptomatic patients to remain within the confines of their homes and consult with physicians virtually. This helps to reduce the risk of infection to frontline health professionals as well as other people these patients may come in contact with during a physical consultation. This reason alone has prompted many healthcare providers to adapt to using telemedicine tech in offering treatment to quarantined patients.
But this is just one aspect. Organizations like the CDC have urged medical staff as well as the public to avoid non-essential communication. This is part of an effort to ease the pressure on the healthcare system, freeing up medical staff to treat critical patients. Telemedicine technology ensures that chronic patients with other illnesses, diseases, or medical problems can still receive care virtually. This reduces the risk of them being exposed to the virus during a physical consultation.
Mitigating Exposure to Frontline Health Workers
Obviously, the people most at risk of contracting the virus are the primary care physicians on the frontline. These medical professionals are working tirelessly around the clock, creating a massive influx of patients with a contagious disease. In a context like the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine can be a useful tool.
For instance, it can be used to separate patients into at-risk and not-at-risk categories. Using this information, physicians can then take appropriate steps to mitigate their exposure to both patients as well as themselves. By helping healthcare providers screen patients virtually, telemedicine can help both save critical time as well as reduce the risk of infection.
Chronic patients suffering from other medical problems also stand to mitigate their risk of exposure to the virus with telemedicine. Virtual appointments from the safety of their home can replace a physical clinic visit. Going a step further, the right logistics can help them get their chronic medication delivered to their homes. Even if a patient is suspected of contracting the virus, their condition can be monitored virtually on a daily basis. Any severe changes in their condition can be met with the appropriate measures in a timely fashion.
Surging Demand for Direct-to-Consumer Telemedicine
There has been a surge in demand from healthcare providers of direct-to-consumer telemedicine technology on a large scale. It is particularly helping healthcare operators to offer care to people who may be exhibiting suspected symptoms of the coronavirus. The technology is helping healthcare providers:
- Determine whether a patient qualifies for emergency treatment.
- Determine whether a patient should be issued a bed in the ICU.
- Determine whether they can be treated in another part of the hospital.
Telemedicine is helping healthcare centers to keep much-needed staff and limit their exposure to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases.
Changing Policy-Level Perceptions to Telemedicine
For the most part, policymakers and healthcare providers are still playing catch-up with telemedicine technology. But the perception is beginning to emerge that it offers a solution to keeping potentially infected individuals away from other people and healthcare workers. Not only that, but many are also beginning to recognize its use as a tool to offer care to patients remotely.
With an escalating pandemic, the idea of telemedicine in mainstream use is quickly gaining traction. This is thanks to the three goals it addresses:
- To remotely screen patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
- Offering routine care remotely to patients already suffering from chronic illnesses.
- Protecting healthcare workers from exposure to the virus and possible quarantine.
How COVID-19 Limits Telemedicine’s Efficacy
So far, telehealth technology is a potentially useful tool in the fight against a global health crisis. There is, however, one very obvious problem. Testing is the keystone for out-of-hospital management, especially in the time of the coronavirus crisis. But conventional telehealth technology may not offer the necessary tools needed for that.
Another problem to consider is that the majority of people exhibit only mild symptoms. The course of their clinical journey may also be unremarkable and they can simply opt for self-isolation. Such cases eliminate the need for telehealth technology in this context.
However, a smaller but significant subset of the population may experience severe symptoms. Their condition may rapidly deteriorate and they may require hospitalization. This clearly highlights the need to modify existing telehealth technology for early testing and diagnosis, as well as prioritizing patients for critical care.
Underequipped Hospitals and Private Practices
There are telecommuters in nearly every industry, but the healthcare industry has conspicuously lagged behind on this trend. Many large hospitals and private practices may be suitably equipped. But a large number of smaller hospitals and practices being underequipped are a significant hurdle to telemedicine use.
Conventional telemedicine has never been used to combat a crisis of the scare of COVID-19. But that has changed. Many governments, as well as medical insurance companies, are now making changes to their policies in line with the needs of the hour. This gives a hopeful outlook to the continued use of telemedicine against global pandemics.
A Lack of Endpoints Within Hospitals
The biggest limitation to the widespread use of telemedicine is the lack of endpoints and hardware within hospitals and healthcare organizations. Many hospitals have some existing healthcare systems and hardware, which they are repurposing for COVID-19. But while most telemedicine tech is hardware-agnostic, they still require sufficiently capable hardware with the right tech needed for a COVID-19 exam. There is no need for cutting-edge hardware, but its quality will still have an impact on the patient experience.
Is Telemedicine Overloading Healthcare Providers?
During a pandemic, it is desirable to have a few patients in the hospital as possible. Many argue that telehealth technology will only encourage more people to come in. This will overload an already strained healthcare system.
Bear in mind that most hospitals have conventionally used the technology as a post-acute care tool. The pandemic has motivated them to ramp up and determine what patients to prioritize, even outside the hospital walls. This way, critical patients get the care they need, while those not at risk can be treated at home while staying healthy and productive. If anything, this will only reduce the pressure on the healthcare system.
Telemedicine is helping reduce the burden on hospitals and healthcare providers. Of course, some doctors will need to screen patients virtually in addition to caring for in-hospital patients, which takes up time. But compare that to doing a physical screening and the risks associated with it.
Most hospitals have varying capacities to use telehealth technology. But those that do have the capacity are seeing its benefits. It helps reduce proximity between patients in waiting rooms. It also reduces the number of doctors forced into quarantine, keeping the healthcare capacity up. Right now, when flattening the curve is a key concern, telehealth technology can be the correct solution.
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