Telehealth, referring to the remote provision of health services, has been in use for many decades. Even in the 1920s, doctors used radios to communicate to rural areas and offer treatment. Today, telehealth encompasses more advanced technologies, including digital
health apps and even wearable and implantable medical devices that continuously monitor the body.
Outside of pandemics, telehealth's main benefits are in convenience and accessibility. Patients in both urban and rural areas have benefitted from telehealth, and studies have shown that telehealth achieves better outcomes, improves quality of care and patients are more satisfied. Moreover, healthcare systems can achieve cost savings through better management of patients and thus avoiding costly hospitalizations and emergency room visits. However, momentum has been slow, including issues with regulation, privacy, and reimbursement.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the uptake of telehealth around the world. Doctors are taking up telehealth to keep patients out of hospitals and inside their own homes for as long as possible. This is a key benefit of telehealth, as hospitals are soon to be, if not already, inundated with COVID-19 patients in severe and critical condition. In March 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration
issued new guidance that expands the use of remote patient monitoring technologies for the express purpose of limiting patient exposure to COVID-19 through hospital visits. Moreover, Trump's $8.3 trillion coronavirus spending bill includes $500 million to pay for Medicare telehealth services. Further to this, the Office for Civil Rights is now not enforcing the use of HIPAA compliant software for communication with patients.
Companies offering telehealth and remote patient monitoring are seeing increased demand for their services and are thus ramping up their efforts to help keep patients out of hospitals. Technologies in use range from live video consultations with a physician, AI-enabled apps that check a patient's symptoms, to connected medical devices such as electronic skin patches that are worn by patients to continuously monitor their vitals.
A primary use of telehealth is to triage COVID-19 patients outside of the hospital. To date, the scientific knowledge around the disease suggests that up to 80% of patients suffer from mild or even asymptomatic disease. As such, these patients should be managed at home, and not within the hospital setting.
But for the patients with "underlying health conditions", telehealth will be more important than ever before. Continuity of high-quality care is paramount, but these individuals must not leave their homes. Remote patient monitoring devices can step in and provide continued monitoring of their vitals, including devices that measure heart rate, heart rhythm, blood pressure, blood glucose, oxygen saturation and many more.
What has been a slow but obvious movement towards adoption of telehealth and remote patient monitoring has now been accelerated beyond imagination. The more that telehealth rises to the challenge in this pandemic the more that it can secure itself as the standard of care going forward.