The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) defines Telemedicine as the practice of using technology to deliver medical care at a distance. Unfortunately, Telemedicine has not enjoyed the success story it had hoped to achieve. It promised to be at the forefront of the future of medicine and promised to make state-of-the-art healthcare more accessible without the need to wait hours in line or the added chance of infecting anyone or getting infected yourself. According to Medcity News, by December of 2017, 82% of US consumers had not taken advantage of these services.
Fast forward to June 2020, the Washington Post reported that more than 118,000 people in the US have died from the COVID-19 virus (as of June 23, 2020). While the healthcare system is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic head-on, the virus and its effects have created historic financial pressures for America’s hospitals and health systems. It took a global pandemic for us to finally understand the limitations of our analogue health care system model: in-person interactions between patients and their clinicians. It was clear that we needed an immediate digital revolution to face this crisis.
Telemedicine presented itself as the ideal solution by allocating hospital capacity to important cases, all while curbing the disease’s spread. As Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella said, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Healthcare organizations and consumers alike have had to rapidly adopt these new technologies. In my household, we have had scheduled visits with my children’s pediatricians, and we have a wireless scale to keep on track with our baby’s weight. Otherwise, we only go to the doctor if it is an absolute emergency. Having access to Telemedicine services is more efficient and allows us all to be more productive as we take less time off going back and forth to the doctor. Telemedicine is finally being recognized as a leader in making healthcare available and accessible.
The Pew Research Center, in June 2019 reported that the vast majority of Americans: 96% own a cellphone of some kind; the share of Americans who own smartphones is 81%, up from just 35% in 2011. Smartphones break down access barriers that existed for many patients. Many private insurance providers are covering telehealth Covid-19 screenings for free, but for the uninsured, direct-to-consumer telemedicine apps like Amwell, HeyDoctor by GoodRx and PlushCare offer low-cost doctor visits. PlushCare costs $99 for the first visit, and $49 for each future visit. Each visit with an Amwell physician costs $69. Many of these apps are showing growth. PlushCare reports appointments are up by 70%; Amwell confirmed that since the virus hit the US in January, usage of the app has increased by 158% nationwide, and increased by 650% in Washington state.
Some apps have responded to the unique demands of the Covid-19 pandemic with new products. Some offer free coronavirus risk-assessments; high-risk patients are directed to consult with a doctor through phone or video. Other apps are investigating at-home Covid-19 testing: take samples at home, mail them to a lab, and speak to a doctor through the app.
COVID-19 has revealed the importance of making Telemedicine an integral part of the healthcare system. My hope is that as the world continues to become truly digital—where information exchange via mobile engagement is second nature—we can transition to a health system where new ways of thinking, payment models and digital technologies coexist to improve the delivery of medical knowledge to the patients who need them in an efficient, effective, equitable manner. We have the technology to strengthen our health care system for patients through digital transformation. It’s time we put these tools into practice.
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