The future of telehealth remains positive
To help cope with the social distancing measures put in place to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, the healthcare industry had to adapt quickly. Telehealth became a saving grace for hospitals, clinics and doctors at the height of the pandemic in search of a way to provide the same quality of care services while minimizing the spread of the coronavirus. Key trends have emerged surrounding the use of the technology that will continue to shape the future of telehealth services.
Simply put, telehealth uses communication technology to deliver healthcare services to patients without the need to be in the same physical location such as video chat via apps or webcams, phones, or video conference software.1 Prior to the pandemic, telehealth services were generally limited adhoc services with a large range of restrictions.2 Originally, they were created to support rural and underserved patients gain access to specialists when local help was severely limited.3 Jump forward to 2020-2021, and telehealth is becoming widespread across all aspects of the industry.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), telehealth utilization spiked by more than 154% in late March of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.4 Additionally, the market is expected to rise to over $397 billion USD by 2027 following current predictions made by Fortune Business Insight.5 To illustrate the impact the pandemic has had on the industry, in 2019 the market was only worth $42 billion USD.5 While usage over time has subsided since the peak of the pandemic, it has become clear that telehealth is now an instrumental part of the future of healthcare delivery.6
What is becoming evident now is a newfound appreciation of the strategic potential that telehealth will bring to the healthcare industry. As organizations across the globe plan to continue to use this technology, here are 8 key trends driving the future of telehealth.
1. Increased patient utilization
What originally was implemented as a strategy to reduce the amount of community transmission, has led to an active conversation between healthcare professionals about the continuation of telehealth consultations for many clients in the future. It is now considered a cost-effective first line of treatment for non-urgent and follow-up appointments.
As of July 2021, telehealth utilization has stabilized at 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels.6 And, even pre-pandemic, evidence supported the increased use of telehealth.7 In a survey conducted by McKinsey, 76% of patients said they would be interested in using telehealth moving forward.6 Furthermore, over half of respondents in a study from the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare said they would utilize telehealth to; refill medications, prepare for an upcoming visit, review test results, or receive education.8 We can expect to see healthcare providers and insurance companies working together moving forward to broaden the availability and accessibility of telehealth.
2. Increased chronic care management
Approximately 1 in 3 of all adults suffer from a chronic condition globally, which includes, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, alzhemiers, diabetes and stroke side effects.9 In most cases lifestyle choices and preventative care methods can help these patients prevent and treat these diseases.10 However, a large portion of these patients do not follow through with their treatment, do not take or refill their repeat prescriptions, or do not attend their regular follow-up appointments to help manage their symptoms.11
This lack of adherence to a care plan costs the industry billions a year.12 Telehealth has the potential to not only reduce the cost of a care plan, but also improve patient engagement and adherence to it. Telehealth is a convenient way for patients to connect to their doctor quickly and frequently. Removing the need for lengthy waits in waiting rooms, and the cost of continuous commutes to the doctors’ office. Additionally, having more frequent connections between patients and doctors may allow for small problems to be caught early enough to reduce the risk of further problems or complications.
3. Greater focus on mental health
Just over 10% of people globally suffer from mental health disorders.13 The pandemic only seemed to worsen the situation causing an increase in depression and anxiety as a result of lockdowns, isolations and the fear of the unknown increase. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide.14 Those already receiving treatment saw their support groups close, their appointments canceled with the clinics, and their outlets for alleviating symptoms became severely limited.
In order to continue to treat patients many therapists, counselors and doctors quickly turned to video conferencing to continue to support their patients. Hence the development of teletherapy and telepsychiatry began and moving forward, this will likely become a widely accepted form of treatment. Without the pandemic, it is still thought that only about half of those diagnosed with mental health disorders receive treatment.15 This is partially due to the limited availability of specialists in one given area, but thanks to the progression of teletherapy and telepsychiatry, this will hopefully be a thing of the past.
4. Improved user experience
Patient demand has been the greatest driving force when it comes to the growth in telehealth. This demand for convenient access to care services will continue and as a result, a greater expectation will be placed on providers. As organizations plan for the future of telehealth, patient experience and expectations should be at the forefront of their minds.16 Additionally, as this demand continues to rise, more and more companies are branching out and entering the market and hence organizations will need to do something to put themselves ahead of the competition.
Patients want their telehealth experience to be seamless and integrated, nobody wants to have to juggle multiple different apps and websites. This means developers are looking at ways to ensure comprehensive service through integrated communications such as video, webchat, and bots, while allowing for real-time updates, reminders and follow-up appointments.17 On top of this it must be streamlined for easy use, allowing patients to access and navigate all their information at the touch of a button.
5. Integrated data sharing
It is not new that services that allow data sharing are easier and more convenient to use and as a result, this is the direction that telehealth is heading. Many telehealth apps are beginning to utilize and communicate with fitness apps, for example, to gather information regarding step count, and heart rate directly from an individual’s devices. This will give healthcare professionals a more rounded view of a person’s lifestyle, and paired with electronic healthcare records, can help create a clearer picture of their current health.17
This idea of integrated data sharing is being driven by interoperability, which is the ability to access, exchange, integrate and cooperatively use data in a coordinated manner, within and across different organizations timely and effectively.18 When systems are interoperable they not only share the data but can interpret the data and present it as its received, preserving its original context.19 This is the future of telehealth and providers need to move from just providing and recording facts to passing on these critical insights back to maximize the benefits to the patients.
6. Wearable technology and remote patient monitoring
As stated previously, telehealth is becoming vital for those with chronic conditions and with that the idea of integrated data sharing leads to the next trend for the future and that is wearable technology. Wearable technology has been around for decades going back to 1970 when HP created a calculator wristwatch. Fast forward to 2009, the first Fitbit fitness tracker was developed.20 Enter the Apple Watch in 2015, which further enhanced the development and growth in product sales of smartwatches and fitness trackers.20 This has allowed the healthcare industry to easily and efficiently begin remote patient monitoring.21 These devices allow doctors to gather real-time data on a number of health measures including activity levels, heart rates, blood pressure, sleep cycles, and glucose levels, more directly from their patients.
Armed with all this additional data about a typical day in the life of their patients, doctors will be able to make more insightful diagnoses and recommendations. Integrating these devices with a secure telehealth platform and electronic health records, will allow members of care teams to intervene at the first sign of trouble. With that said, there will likely be an increase in wearable technology and the sharing of data generated by these devices with healthcare providers, on the condition that patients trust the security and privacy measures in place. Furthermore, the technology and platforms must be easy to use to ensure easy integration into daily life for the patient and doctor.2
7. Convenient remote pediatric care
Monitoring a sick child is never easy. Children are often good at masking their symptoms, have difficulty communicating and often become shy or scared in front of medical staff.23 This becomes especially difficult for those who need long-term monitoring. But, with the use of telehealth, it becomes more convenient for the parent and can lower the costs of high-quality care.24
Pre-pandemic pediatric telehealth was already seeing growth, but it is thought that this growth will become more widespread in the next few years. This is thanks to the upcoming generations of parents becoming more accustomed to using virtual technology than previous generations.22 In addition, there is an increase in telehealth services being directed toward young people, for example, the development of virtual physiotherapy designed to mimic video games.25 Overall, it is likely that the adoption of telehealth for pediatric care will continue to grow significantly over the next few years.26
8. Investments in technology
Finally, telehealth will not be possible without the technological infrastructure to support it, and as a result, further investments need to be made. The use of digital health tools is ever-evolving, from COVID-19 Tracing apps, to wellness trackers to telehealth and virtual health apps – all of which are accessible from the comfort of home.19 In terms of telehealth, investments in knowledge and technology will enable more effective initiatives and applications.6 Telehealth encompasses a shift toward a more effective, patient-centric approach both in terms of providing targeted and responsive levels of care where patients prefer, as well as reducing pressures on the healthcare workforce.19
There are not enough healthcare professionals and there has been a labor shortage for some time, which was highlighted during the pandemic.19 Investments into technology that supports the growth in telehealth, will further reduce pressure on the workforce and potentially allow them to deliver better care.
Telehealth is here to stay
These are the key trends that have become clear since the widespread adoption of telehealth services over the last 18 months. Telehealth provides the healthcare industry with so many advantages that although we are starting to see the end of this pandemic, the utilization of this revolutionary technology will continue far into the future.
Telehealth has proved not only to be more convenient for patients but it has the potential to provide so many further benefits including improving public health, improving access to care, relieving pressure on the healthcare workforce, and helping to reduce financial stress.
Telehealth has been the saving grace for the healthcare industry during the pandemic, but as we begin to move forward, what is clear is that telehealth is here to stay.