The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has skyrocketed telehealth services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the largest healthcare provider in the region. They experienced a 3700% surge of telemedicine visits from 250 per day in March to close to 9500 per day at the end of April.

Why is telemedicine preferred?

For patients, especially those who already have pre-existing medical conditions, digital services are not about convenience but also a lifeline. Visiting the hospitals for their routine checkup means their chances of catching the coronavirus is higher. Thus, some of them choose to push back their visits, causing their conditions to deteriorate. This became one of the main reasons why medical professionals engaged in telehealth in the first place. Besides, patients enjoy the fact that they can spend more time with their physicians during telemedicine than they do for face-to-face visits.

UPMC struggled with the speedy rise in telemedicine at first, there were delays in appointments and some patients failed to log into their portal for their first visit. Situation improves over time and now, physicians are the ones being challenged. They will not stop receiving calls or updates about a patient because they can no longer put them in the hospital and keep them in constant check. Nevertheless, they still hope that telemedicine can continue.

At the moment, the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had temporarily loosened the requirement for remote care. In the past, patients have to travel to their local medical facility to video call their physicians working in larger cities. With the pandemic, patients can do so at home via their preferred platforms. The agency had also equalized the payment for telemedicine consultations and face-to-face office visits.

As such, policymakers will be the ones to have the final say whether the current practice can go on when the global health crisis is over.

A new review process is required

Across the Atlantic, a similar dilemma surfaced. UK’s National Health Service (NHS) revealed an exponential increase in demands for its digital services since the coronavirus outbreak began in the country. The most significant growth comes from the use of the NHS app and NHS 111 online portal. Recently, there has been some discussions on what are some of the wider impacts these tools have on the healthcare system and whether they will still be available after the pandemic has come to an end.

Indeed, some regard the swelling of technology adoption as a “kick forward” to ensure NHS staff are no longer “technophobes” but readily prepared for the digital age. Others feel that since these tools were adopted in a haste, their efficacy in the long-run needs to be more closely evaluated.

After all, medicine and healthcare are generally rigid and encompass many factors that do not allow changes to take place easily. With that, Sarah Wilkinson, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NHS Digital said in an interview with Digital Health News that “I think we will see broader use of tools such as e-triage along with citizens use of technology and remote care”.

“These things are here to stay” but details such as data sharing, additional information that is coming into the health system and practitioners who have taken up these tools will have to be reviewed again because the present legal basis will no longer be relevant after the pandemic. “I think we’ll stick to this new way of using technology” Wilkinson adds.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.