Over the course of 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic catalyzed an exponential increase in the need for virtual medicine services. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, the demand for telemedicine services increased by 683% between March 2, 2020, and April 14, 2020, alone.
Hospitals and health professionals have also ramped up their efforts to make virtual health services more readily available.
While the public health crisis certainly pushed strong growth, this demand increase is really a spike in a long-term upward trend. By 2017, 76% of U.S. hospitals were already incorporating video calls and other technology into their practices.
Healthcare professionals believe this will only continue to grow in the coming years.
What Is Telemedicine?
Telemedicine in its broadest sense is almost as old as medicine itself, though it took forms modern-day patients wouldn’t recognize. Ancient civilizations often used hieroglyphs to warn the public of epidemics. Smoke signals were another common tool to inform others of outbreaks. By the Civil War, military personnel were using telegrams to document casualties and place orders for more medical supplies.
Long before internet connections were stable enough to support video calls, some patients were already participating in modern telemedicine. Placing calls to the doctor’s office and describing symptoms or receiving recommendations or prescriptions over the phone are all, technically, forms of telemedicine.
Today, telemedicine relies largely on video calling capabilities.
What takes place during these calls varies based on the type of doctor and the patients’ complaints. For example, a physician might only need to listen to a patient’s description of symptoms. In other cases, the doctor might need to complete a visual inspection by video. If the doctor believes an in-person follow-up is necessary, he or she provides a referral or the patient can book an appointment with the office.
What Are the Components of Telemedicine?
Telehealth services manifest in varied ways for different professionals, networks, and specialty areas. This stems from the many components health professionals might incorporate into their telehealth infrastructure.
Some telehealth services still occur via telephone only. This is especially likely in telepsychology when patients prefer to seek mental health services anonymously.
Chat and Email
Telepsychology also sometimes makes use of texting and instant messaging for patients to set up appointments with their therapist or psychologist, and in some cases to check in about a patient’s mental health.
Most telehealth services use video so doctors are better able to confirm the identity of patients, observe patients and complete inspections. It also creates a more personal connection.
Patients no longer need to go to the doctor to conduct tests. From DNA swabs to stool samples, patients can collect samples on their own, have a nurse stop by for a sample draw, and even mail or drop off the biological material while they await results.
Sometimes, doctors require more long-term monitoring of specific factors, such as heart rate or exercise. In these instances, patients use wearable, connected devices to collect information.
Some patients just need clarification on whether they have specific health conditions. Bots have become especially adept at assisting with this. In fact, medical facilities and local governments often use bots to screen for health conditions.
More often than not, telehealth medical personnel rely on apps to make virtual visits possible. Sometimes, they rely on existing communication apps, such as Facebook Messenger or Zoom. In other cases, facilities create their own apps or use 3rd party services, such as BetterHelp.
Oftentimes, telehealth patients are not in the same town or state as their doctors. This makes referrals especially important for patient follow-up when telehealth is not enough.
Doctors may prescribe medications via telemedicine that patients can pick up at their local pharmacies. In some cases, they could have the medication delivered right to their doors.
How Does a Patient Find a Doctor Online?
Like any other service, quality and overall professionalism can vary. Because of this, patients must put additional work into verifying the credentials of the medical professionals they choose to work with. The easiest way to accomplish this is to choose a network that completes this verification task on their behalf.
Check the Insurance Coverage
Some insurance providers sell telemedicine plans separately as supplemental insurance services. In other cases, telemedicine is included in existing health insurance policies. The insurance company generally chooses a network and provides patients with instructions on how to sign up and sign in. The network then hires qualified professionals.
Check the Doctor’s Office
Sometimes, a patient’s existing doctor might have virtual medical services already available. Even if they do not currently advertise this service, it’s worth asking. The more people request the service, the more confident doctors feel about investing in telemedicine.
Conduct Online Research
When patients do not have plans that include telemedicine, and their doctors do not provide the service, figuring out how to find a doctor online becomes a little trickier. Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to look up qualifications online:
- Check online reviews for the doctor’s office or the facility he or she works at.
- Verify qualifications via the Federation of State Medical Boards website.
- Check the boards that doctors claim to be verified with to confirm accreditation.
- Check with the licensing board in the state to determine whether the doctor should be legally practicing medicine.
- Complete a Google search of the doctor’s name to see if any questionable events occurred that made the news.
- Confirm how long a doctor has been practicing in the area relative to his or her age.
Review State Laws
Telemedicine has long outgrown existing health care laws that apply to general medicine. Consequently, each U.S. state and territory regulates telemedicine as they see fit, and the laws can be drastically different. Variations come into play for licensing, privacy, coverage, payment and online prescriptions.
What Are Some Common Ailments Treated?
To determine which illnesses are most commonly treated via telemedicine, look at which doctors primarily use telemedicine. Psychiatrists, radiologists and cardiologists have higher use rates for telemedicine than all other practices. In contrast, gynecologists, obstetricians, gastroenterologists and immunologists use telehealth services least often.
Depression and Anxiety
In 2020, depression and anxiety rates increased across the country. Because of the risks associated with in-person services, psychiatrists and psychologists turned to telemedicine to serve their patients. At the same time, networks providing these services at affordable rates also grew. BetterHelp alone experienced a 60% increase in downloads during the public health crisis.
When people with contagious diseases visit health facilities for diagnosis, they risk infecting others. There are also many false alarms that might be identifiable online using artificial intelligence.
One telemedicine company that focuses exclusively on strokes became one of the most popular care services for these patients to turn to for assistance. This confirms the practicality of using telemedicine to treat serious conditions.
Studies have shown similar outcomes between people who receive in-person treatments for diabetes and those who seek telehealth services. The affordability of telemedicine and the prevalence of diabetes in America could lead to better diabetes management over time.
Perhaps one of the most surprising health conditions managed by telehealth services is heart disease. In fact, one study showed that congenital heart failure patients tended to have similar outcomes when treated by in-person doctors compared to when treated virtually.
Who Can Benefit Most From Telemedicine?
There are millions of people around the world who never receive medical care because in-person visits are too difficult or expensive to complete regularly. People in these situations are the ones most likely to benefit from telemedicine.
Rural communities often lack many of the services and infrastructure that urban dwellers take for granted. Sadly, medical care is one of those services rural residents miss out on. Roughly 26% of rural residents say they do not have adequate access to health care services. The more specialized their medical needs, the more difficult it is to find care. Telemedicine can do wonders to fill that gap.
People who travel far, wide and often have a difficult time coordinating their physical locations to determine when they can set up doctors’ appointments. Common examples include traveling salesmen, business executives, full-time RVers and even travel nurses. It’s much easier to carve out time for a telehealth appointment.
The older people become, the less mobile they often are. Seniors might not be able to drive themselves to appointments or might suffer from coditions that make them unwilling to tackle the hassle of visiting a doctors’ office. Telemedicine can help seniors regain their independence and get the care they need.
People With Disabilities
Disabilities can rob people of independence, making it difficult for them to attend physical visits. Telemedicine makes it easier for people with disabilities to access health services. This is especially important when disabilities affect mobility or cause pain.
When someone is ill, even with a contagious disease, the go-to solution is to visit the doctor. More often than not, doctors can diagnose infectious diseases remotely using video observations, photos and collecting biological samples. Staying home can save lives, especially when people with compromised immune systems visit the same facility.
One of the first pioneers of telemedicine was NASA. The organization needed a way to remotely monitor the vital signs of astronauts and provide remote medical care. In the past year, there has been renewed interest in space travel and even colonizing new planets. Telemedicine could play an instrumental role here.
People With No Independent Transportation
People with no personal vehicles in areas with limited or expensive public transportation often skip medical care because of the hassle. Telemedicine can make it easier for these people to access the care they need and improve their quality of life.
America’s medical care costs are up to three times more than in most other developed countries. Consequently, lower-income families often opt not to get health insurance. Whereas health insurance can cost hundreds of dollars monthly for a single individual, a telehealth subscription can cost as little as $20 per month. This makes basic care far more affordable and accessible via telehealth.
What Are Common Barriers to Finding a Doctor Online?
Sadly, studies show that the people who stand to benefit the most from telemedicine rarely access the service. One particular study found that none of the people who reported poor health in that year had tried to use telehealth services. These are some of the most common barriers:
- Seniors, rural residents, lower-income families and people with disabilities are less likely to have high-speed internet.
- Seniors, rural residents and lower-income families often had no idea telehealth services were available.
- Rural residents and lower-income families often wrongly believed their communities or doctors did not provide telehealth services.
Why May Telemedicine Services Continue To Grow in Popularity?
The benefits of telemedicine go far beyond the benefits to the patient. It also has far-reaching benefits for the medical industry and environmental health. This will likely contribute to continued support.
Smaller Carbon Footprint
When fewer people visit health care facilities, doctors can opt for smaller offices. There are also fewer people commuting back and forth between facilities on a daily basis. Consequently, reducing in-person visits could reduce carbon emissions.
Reallocation of Tax Dollars
Health care makes up a big portion of tax-dollar spending for most governments. States also need to provide health care for prison inmates. In one Texas study involving medical care for inmates, telemedicine saved the state $780 million over a 14-year period.
When more people have access to basic care, the population is healthier and happier. People are also more productive when they’re happy. This translates into higher productivity levels at work and in the classroom.
Health care professionals believe that the current popularity of telemedicine will prompt more people to question why they can’t receive more medical services remotely. The desire for convenience has revolutionized retail, banking and several other industries; medicine is following a similar trend.
Even so, governments and private organizations will need to address barriers to telemedicine to ensure the people who need it most can access the services. This might require holistic education efforts on telemedicine topics, such as how to find a doctor online.