By Dan Matthews, Writer, Content Consultant, and Researcher
Telemedicine did not originate with the advent of COVID-19, of course. The technology long predates the pandemic and the era of global lockdowns. However, as the virus raged around the world, healthcare providers and government officials alike were compelled to go all-in on virtual healthcare.
Now, as hope for the end of the pandemic rises on the horizon, questions surrounding the future of telemedicine are emerging. Addressing these questions responsibly and accurately, though, involves debunking several misconceptions that persist regarding telemedicine. This article examines some of the most important of these.
1. It’s an Inferior Alternative to In-Person Care
Patients and healthcare providers alike may still labor under the misconception that telemedicine should only be used as a last resort, as a make-do option or plan B to tide patients over until “real” healthcare can be provided.
The reality, however, is that telemedicine isn’t just an alternative to traditional in-person care in most cases but can enable superior quality of care. The opportunity to “meet” with their healthcare provider from the comfort of their own home often increases patient engagement with their doctor, reducing missed appointments and promoting compliance.
The benefits for the elderly, for patients with disabilities, and for those who do not have access to reliable transportation are especially significant. Indeed, for many of these patients, the rise of telemedicine may grant them consistent access to quality medical care for the first time in many years, perhaps for the first time in their entire lives.
In addition, telehealth services encompass far more than just virtual video or telephone consultations. They also include more advanced care services, such as mHealth or mobile health technologies. These include remote patient monitoring to facilitate diagnosis and treatment and to promote patient safety. The patient’s healthcare team and family members can even receive instant alerts when these in-home or wearable devices detect signs of a potential medical emergency.
2. It’s Too Expensive
Patients and practitioners alike may significantly overestimate the costs of telemedicine. Particularly since the COVID-19 outbreak, most major health insurers are now covering some or all of the costs of telehealth services, as do many Medicare and Medicaid plans. In addition, the costs to provide care through virtual platforms are often far lower than in-office care, resulting in an estimated $3.30 return on every dollar invested in telehealth services.
3. It’s Not Secure
The security of telehealth platforms is perhaps one of the biggest sources of concern. It is also among the most damaging of the misconceptions surrounding the practice. When practitioners adhere to established guidelines, as they are required to do, then these systems are highly secure.
Telehealth platforms operate through the construction of dedicated, password-protected patient portals where virtual “visits” take place and also where patients’ medical records are typically stored. This allows not only the healthcare team but also the patient him or herself to have secure access to their vital medical data, anytime, anywhere.
Maintaining patient privacy in telehealth platforms aligns with the standards and practices that healthcare providers use to secure patients’ electronic medical records (EMR). Standard HIPAA regulations pertaining both to physical and to electronic materials will automatically promote the security of telehealth services. This would include the use of encrypted drives and device locks to secure both the portal and the provider-side equipment used to operate it.
On the patient side, security can be assured principally through patient education. While patients won’t be able to access records or health services without using a password to enter the secure portal, educating patients about how to protect the privacy of their individual information, such as reminding patients to log out of the portal at the end of each session, will be an important component of telehealthcare.
4. You Need a Degree from MIT to Do It
The implementation of telemedicine into one’s practice or one’s personal healthcare regimen may feel intimidating at first. The good news is that, from a technological standpoint, it’s probably much simpler than it may at first seem.
This is particularly true for the healthcare provider because the same technologies necessary to run a modern medical practice, such as a secure, high-speed internet connection and video conferencing capabilities, can be readily expanded to incorporate telehealth services. Getting the most out of telehealth appointments, for patient or provider, means ensuring this technology is in place before beginning the practice.
For patients, of course, the challenges may be greater, particularly for low-income individuals or those who live in rural areas with limited access to a high-speed connection. In such cases, flexibility may be needed, such as building enough time into virtual appointments to accommodate slow or dropped connections or allowing phone consultations as an alternative to video conferencing.
Telemedicine is not exactly a new technology, but it has proven its enormous utility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it will only achieve its fullest potential once the persistent misconceptions surrounding telemedicine are debunked.