This article examines how telemedicine has proven as essential as any form of PPE since COVID-19 began spreading across the globe, as well as what lies ahead for it in a post-pandemic world.
Fair and equitable access to quality healthcare is both a common goal and a common challenge to deliver. Healthcare systems are frequently combatting issues that prove difficult to resolve, including:
- Offering equitable access across geographical areas
- Maintaining high-quality infrastructure and service levels
- Distribution of resources across areas
- Maintaining cost-effectiveness is systems with changing requirements and uneven distribution of need.
These challenges have led to new and evolving tools relating to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which offer more options for accessing a range of healthcare areas. This article considers the barriers that have prevented telemedicine from being used more widely to date, and how COVID-19 has forced a change in how it is used.
What is telemedicine and what does it mean for patients?
First introduced in the 1970s, telemedicine is the use of ICT to offer remote access to healthcare, and patient and treatment information. It is noted as being able to improve access to healthcare where geographical distances are a barrier and resources are not spread evenly across areas.
So, why hasn’t it been widely adopted?
In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) surveyed developed and developing nations, to better understand their investment in and use of telemedicine. Over 30% of responding countries had a national agency for the promotion and development of telemedicine, with developing countries as likely to have an agency as developed ones. However, the following challenges to wider implementation were identified:
- A lack of technical skills available to support the uptake in healthcare centres and to help troubleshoot issues
- Legal issues surrounding patient confidentiality and information sharing
- Miss-diagnosis and quality of care if no in-person appointment is made to follow up on the remote support
- Perceived lack of demand by potential users.
Whilst enthusiasm for telemedicine and remote healthcare has steadily increased since 2010, the actual application has not progressed at the same rate. The barriers have largely remained the same, with pilot projects struggling to transition into wider implementation.
Telemedicine and COVID-19
With the emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19, healthcare systems were forced to adapt quickly and maintain flexibility to lower its spread in healthcare facilities, whilst not dismantling those in need’s access to normal treatments. To do this, many areas have adopted remote consultations (via telephone and video calls) and submission of enquiries (via online forms), in an effort to either replace face-to-face appointments or triage patients in an advance of in-person consultations and tests. The WHO encourages a speedy uptake to ensure care is not interrupted for those not suffering from COVID-19 but have other conditions.
The benefits of this approach have meant:
- A reduced number of patients have had to travel to healthcare centres, lowering the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 whilst also saving them time and transport costs
- Those seeking healthcare are given the ability to speak to healthcare professions in a way that may be more suitable for full-time workers and caregivers.
In response to this rapid uptake, revised growth numbers estimate the market size for telemedicine to reach $396.7 billion by 2027, up from $41 billion in 2019. With this rise in use, the long-term benefits of wider implementation of telemedicine are anticipated to be:
- Making healthcare more accessible, without the need to take time off work or travel to a location to see a specialist
- Enabling healthcare systems to recruit and the best utilise healthcare providers, even in rural areas
- Improving overall communications with patients
- Reducing costs for healthcare providers
- Patient triaging can be done in advance of in-person appointment and consultations on minor issues can be provided without patients taking up in-person appointments.
Taking telemedicine to the next step, Cumbria and Nottinghamshire have begun trialling new interventions, including no-touch infrared thermometer, digital stethoscope and otoscopes with connectivity allowing data transmission to GP surgeries, hospitals, and community services. Paired with a video consultation platform, this range of options will enable a wider access to healthcare beyond what is currently used.
The future of telemedicine
Whilst remote access to healthcare may not be an immediately obvious option to many and will likely not be suitable for all people seeking to access healthcare services, creating a diverse set of options using new and existing technologies will broaden the range of availability. Alongside this, whilst telemedicine will not solve all challenges relating to healthcare, reducing, or removing some will have a positive impact on both providers and users.
How we can help you
If you have a product related to remote access of healthcare services and would like assistance developing it or bringing it to market, speak to your Innovation Advisor today. Advisors can provide support throughout the full product development journey, from ideation to commercialisation.
Advisors can also provide valuable links to local knowledge bases, including universities, and can support the development of a wider network locally, regionally, and nationally.
This article is part of a series on the development of healthcare and the use of innovation to reduce and remove healthcare system challenges. In the next article, we’ll consider the development cycle of med-tech, how it differs from other industries and what businesses need to consider throughout the product development journey.
Clare Cornes, Innovation Development Manager (University of Salford)
Clare joined the Business Growth Hub as the Innovation Development Manager for the University of Salford in July 2019. Within this position, Clare uses her passion for new technologies and innovation to support SMEs in working with the University.
Prior to this role, Clare has led an autonomous vehicle development and trials programme for a British automotive manufacturer; managed multiple UK and European funded projects that utilised new technologies to improve local challenges; written national and international position papers analysing new innovations in relation to health and sustainable transport initiatives; and inputted into regional transport strategies to ensure new technologies are considered when designing schemes to solve city region challenges.
Alongside professional roles, Clare is also undertaking a PhD in her spare time, researching the barriers and challenges associated with implementing a sustainable Mobility as a Service (MaaS) system in Greater Manchester, including the policy and regulatory considerations. The research includes understanding what MaaS means in practical terms for transport planners, policy makers, related businesses and users. Through this experience, Clare has developed a skill for translating technical developments into socio-economic impacts and is keen to support SMEs developing innovative products and services as part of their business growth.