Telemedicine: More Than Just a Quick Call to Your Doctor?
Telemedicine: More Than Just a Quick Call to Your Doctor?
Tanvir Minhas - 21 Feb 2021
In the past year, the utilization of telemedicine, also known as telehealth, has skyrocketed. The rising coronavirus cases have been accompanied by a heightened risk associated with going into your family physician’s office. Given that concern, telehealth has played a significant role in streamlining medicine.
Telemedicine and COVID-19
Telemedicine can be used as a general term discussing the exchange of medical information and research through technological means to better the health of populations. Given the current circumstances regarding the pandemic, telemedicine is most commonly considered to be the use of remote meetings and consultations with physicians, preferable to making physical visits to the doctor’s office. It was reported that there was a 154% increase in the use of telemedicine in March 2020 compared to March 2019.
The adoption of telemedicine during the pandemic has the obvious benefit of reducing non-essential visits to the doctor while still providing medical assistance to those seeking it. The implications reach beyond that, limiting patient-doctor interactions, conserving personal protective equipment that healthcare workers may have utilized during the interactions, and reducing the overall demand of in-person healthcare facilities.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed that telemedicine was mainly used in the form of either phone or video calls between physicians and patients. With technological advancements and more research into the area, however, telemedicine has developed into forms other than synchronous meetings with physicians. These new forms of telemedicine, outlined later on, have opened a discussion on the practicality of adopting telehealth practices voluntarily rather than out of necessity when in-person visits are not restricted.
There is the possibility of asynchronous use wherein patient information is collected, then interpreted and discussed later, or the option for remote monitoring of patients. The latter has the potential to lower the need for post-operative care taking place within the hospital. It would allow medical professionals to track their patients’ wellbeing while keeping hospital occupancy rates low and allowing patients to recover in the comfort of their own homes.
In an increasingly technological society such as the one we live in today, there is no surprise that telehealth apps have emerged as well. Maple, a virtual healthcare platform based out of Toronto, provides 24/7 virtual access to physicians, operating outside of Ontario’s traditional public healthcare system. Maple utilizes a model similar to that of Uber: physicians control all interactions and appointment bookings, whereas the app works as a middleman to connect patients to medical professionals.
Even with the implementation of telemedicine and its many benefits, there remain some disadvantages.
It has the potential to cause health disparities amongst those with differential access to technology, further contributing to the unequal access to healthcare based on socioeconomic status. In terms of third-party telemedicine apps such as Maple, there lies a concern in the quality of care given that physicians lack access to a patient’s medical history and are unlikely to ever see the same patient more than once. Many have also been skeptical of the physical barriers that come with telemedicine because of physicians’ inability to examine patients beyond what they can see virtually. Such barriers may have an impact on diagnosis, but also the maintenance of a patient-physician relationship that is often required to fully understand a patient’s health concerns.
Despite previous concerns, one aspect that can still be advantageous is its potential ability to improve the accessibility of healthcare amongst those in rural areas. Rural communities are often faced with lower health outcomes caused by a multitude of structural and social factors. A prevalent example of these structural barriers is that their care centers are often situated further away than they are in urban areas, and the lack of adequate transportation services to accommodate that.
This can be applied further to those who are unable to take time off work, or who have responsibilities within their household, such as childcare, that prevent them from consulting with their physician, regardless of geographic location.
With such circumstances, it is often more difficult to seek medical care and can be unfortunately delayed until absolutely necessary because of the inability to attend an in-person doctor’s appointment. In that sense, telemedicine can be utilized to allow routine checkups and consultations on health issues before they worsen. This could result in the prevention of serious health conditions and has the potential to lower hospitalization rates.
There is no doubt that telemedicine has gained traction within the last year, adding to the list of everyday routine activities that have been altered by the pandemic. It is clear that there is an array of both advantages and disadvantages associated with the adoption of telehealth practices as a norm in our healthcare system. Whether or not telemedicine is here to stay however, it truly does raise interesting questions on the potential for technology to improve health outcomes.
Tanvir is a second year Microbiology and Immunology student at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been involved with OMS since 2017 and is very excited to be a part of the launch of this blog! With a keen interest in medicine and a passion for inclusivity in the field, Tanvir is looking forward to being a part of a blog that aims to ignite important conversations within the scientific community.