In mid-march when the COVID-19 pandemic began to reshape the way people lived their lives, companies were tasked with quickly figuring out a secure way to digitize. This was especially important for healthcare professionals. Prior to the pandemic, numerous telehealth and digital healthcare companies had developed technologies to supplement in-patient care. However, many of these platforms did not become widespread due to several factors, such as security and accessibility issues. In response to the global pandemic, hospitals and technology companies had to collaborate to bring telehealth into the mainstream, which could now change the way healthcare is delivered forever.
To understand the applications for telehealth and digital health in medicine, it is important to determine how these platforms can fill unmet patient needs. Companies can fall into different categories based on intended outcomes:
- Telehealth visits to cut down on costs and time burdens: Applications such as MDLive, Doctor on Demand, Amwell, and many others already gave patients the option to see doctors remotely before the pandemic (1b).
- Chronic disease control: Blue Star by Welldoc, is a key example of the way a telemedicine platform can constantly monitor a known chronic condition and proactively help patients to take actions to improve their health (3).
- Acute care: Soctelemed details how hospitals can use telemedicine to monitor patients in the ICU and create care plans to give doctors more flexibility to treat patients who need it the most (4).
- Insurance: Companies such as hioscar have created platforms to simplify the patient experience with insurance and cut down on unnecessary costs (2).
How the Pandemic Shifted Hospital Needs
To use telemedicine effectively, hospitals need to install telemedicine hardware, ensure security and HIPAA regulations are met across platforms, and prescribe usage to patients regularly. Many hospitals did not adopt these platforms because they did not need this technology to treat patients, so they lacked the motivation to undergo this process as the technology became available. The pandemic served as a catalyst to force hospitals to adapt, mainly by normalizing telehealth doctor visits. Telehealth commonly became used to diagnose non-urgent conditions that did not require additional testing, screen patients for COVID-19 related symptoms prior to in-person visits, and allow doctors who needed to quarantine to continue treating patients (1a).
The Future of Telemedicine
Although telemedicine will never replace the compassion of human interactions involved in doctor visits, and the need for physical testing, it is clear that telemedicine has many potential implications for the future landscape of healthcare delivery. While there are so many exciting platforms available, doctors and patients both need to opt into using these technologies regularly for large-scale implementation to occur. Insurance and chronic disease control telemedicine platforms appear to rely more on patient users compared to acute care and telehealth doctor visits, because patients can interact with numerous resources other than just a physician. At this time it is unclear if the rise of telemedicine usage during the pandemic is transient. For more involved platforms, such as acute care treatment, hospitals need to invest in specific hardware. This might be a significant up-front cost, but it could generate more revenue in the future.
Together, these technologies empower patients to take control of their health through easy-access to knowledge. All of these different technologies can reduce the burden on healthcare professionals and enhance patient outcomes in the long-term. As technology continues to advance, finding ways to effectively implement platforms in a secure, and simplified way will be key to increasing compliance. Advancing the standardization of digital health and telemedicine may turn out to be one positive that comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic.