As day to day life in countries around the world continues to be affected by COVID-19, one of the many things that has changed is the way we access medical advice and treatment. With many governments still advising people to self-quarantine or self-isolate in the first instance of experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, accessing medical consultations virtually may be something many of us are being exposed to for the first time.
So what is telemedicine and why should you consider it?
What is Telemedicine?
In general, telemedicine refers to the practice of providing evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment using telecommunications technology. Telemedicine allows clinicians to make decisions and advise, diagnose, and prescribe treatment, as well as arranging for medicine to be sent to the patient, without physically meeting and examining them.
Telemedicine usually involves the use of video calling technology, as it allows clinicians to make a visual assessment, as opposed to traditional telephone medical services where a medic would be reliant exclusively on the oral description of symptoms from the patient.
Telemedicine can also sometimes be referred to as telehealth or e-health. While these terms are often used interchangeably, telemedicine is usually a more specific service that deals with clinical services, whereas telehealth incorporates a broader range of services.
When and Where is Telemedicine Used?
The main use of telemedicine in a patient context is to allow clinicians to consult with patients who are in remote areas, or who may otherwise find it difficult to travel to a medical facility.
Telemedicine has also been used to help alleviate pressure and reduce waiting times in locations where there is a shortage of healthcare professionals or where services are becoming overburdened with long waiting times. In recent months many countries have actively encouraged the use of telemedicine to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rapid growth of telemedicine has seen increasing numbers of medical professionals and services around the world now offer this as a service for all patients, and not just where it is necessary as a result of circumstance.
What are the Benefits of Telemedicine?
The primary driving force behind the development of telemedicine is the desire to make medical consultations more accessible and address shortages for those living in remote rural areas. In short telemedicine makes it easier for patients to access treatment anywhere, any time!
In addition to making care more accessible to patients, telemedicine can deliver a range of additional benefits, including:
- Making healthcare costs less expensive both for providers and patients.
- Reducing the waiting time to see a doctor, including specialists. This could be potentially lifesaving in locations where access to for example, oncologists is low.
- In some case telemedicine is offered 24/7, providing access to medical consultations outside of normal working hours – thereby reducing pressures on accident and emergency departments.
- Improved patient engagement, leading to better clinician-patient relationships and potentially better medical outcomes.
- It also offers the potential to more effectively monitor patient’s with long term conditions remotely, for example using technology to monitor changes in heart rate.
- A better quality of care in the longer term. Telemedicine can enable patients with conditions requiring on-going management, including chronic conditions, to get more regular feedback from their medical professional, helping to prevent the need for acute intervention at a later stage.
While there are some potential drawbacks to telemedicine, including the need for a good internet connection which may not always be accessible, overall the benefits offered both to the patient and medical professionals are significant.
Why Might Telemedicine be Important in a COVID-19 World?
With many countries still in a state of so-called “lockdown”, patients in sine locations may be advised not to use medical facilities except in the case of life threatening emergencies or where they have been specifically advised to travel to them.
As a result, telemedicine has played an increasingly important role in helping people access medical advice during the pandemic. Telemedicine may end up being the answer to tough questions around how clinicians can assess patients more quickly without risking their own or others’ health by physically meeting with those who may be contagious.
While it will take time to fully implement the necessary technology and processes for telemedicine services in some part of the world, we should expect it to be become more prominent in the future, even after the pandemic passes.
How Do I Seek Medical Treatment Remotely?
Depending on your location and your health situation, you may have already been offered or be able to access telemedicine services. Even if you live in an urban area with good access to medical facilities, you may still wish to use telemedicine services now or in the future.
Your first port of call should be either your private health insurer or your registered doctor if you live in a country with a universal healthcare system. Contact them first to discover what telemedicine services, if any, are available.
Many telemedicine services require you to pre-register to access them, so even if you don’t need to seek treatment now it’s good to find out what services are available so you know where to go should you need a remote appointment in the future.
If you don’t have immediate access to telemedicine through your local healthcare system, then you can search online for telemedicine providers. There are numerous websites and smartphone apps that enable patients to access telemedicine services. You will likely need to register your details and be required to pay for the services you use.
If you do choose to seek telemedicine services and have private health cover, you should discuss this with your insurance provider to check what telemedicine treatment is covered and how and when you may be able to claim back the costs.
Telemedicine and Remote Treatment in a Changing World
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, technology has been changing the world around us at a rapid pace. While the early years of telemedicine adoption and growth were driven primarily out of necessity, in the coming years you can expect to see an increase in access to these services as the benefits become more widely understood.
In-person appointments and consultations will remain an important part of diagnosis and care for a variety of conditions, but for millions of people, seeing their doctor via video call will undoubtedly become part of our ‘new normal’.
If you are an existing Now Health International member, please contact your local Customer Service team to find out about access to telemedicine services in your area.