While it is not at all a new service, the practice of telehealth is getting substantially more attention of late. This is due almost entirely to the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed telehealth to the forefront of medicine out of necessity. With people unwilling to be in close quarters due to the virus, many medical appointments, that would once have been in person, took place via phone and video chat instead.
Now, even as we move slowly toward the practical end of the crisis, the increasing consensus is that telehealth is likely here to stay. While many appointments will certainly return to ordinary in-person settings in the aftermath of the pandemic, many more will continue to occur over distance. The convenience of it is simply undeniable, and provides benefits to both patients and care providers.
That said, some patients are understandably uneasy about this idea. There’s tremendous value in being able to see nurses and doctors in person, and the notion of moving away from that and toward “solely virtual medicine” can be troubling. To reassure people who may share these kinds of concerns, we want to point out a few reasons why telehealth is not something to be feared.
Telehealth is Not a Replacement
Maybe the most important thing to stress here is that telehealth is not meant to fully replace traditional methods of patient care. Rather, as university health professionals in a write-up on health care after COVID put it, telehealth is meant to “supplement and support” doctor-patient relationships. In other words, we can think of tech-based remote care less as a replacement and more as an enhancement. During the pandemic, telehealth has been a great help ensuring people get the care they need. In the future, however, it will represent a way for patients to contact healthcare professionals more quickly and/or frequently.
An Influx of Care Providers
Another concern some have with a move toward more telehealth is that there will be so many patients vying for virtual appointments, that medical professionals will actually be less accessible. However, there is no real evidence from 2020 to support this idea, and it is also worth noting that there are ongoing influxes of medical care providers that will keep the “supply” of professionals up — particularly among nurses. In addition to regular colleges and medical programs, online universities are now preparing students for numerous types of careers in nursing, helping to expand the number of trained professionals entering the field every year. It’s reasonable to expect that there will simply be more nurses (and doctors as well) with each new year to come, which should help to dispel the notion that there won’t be enough care to go around.
This is a simple note, but it’s also worth considering that the technology of telehealth is only going to improve moving forward — as will our familiarity with it. Throughout 2020, some video chat applications performed better than others, many people were awkward with virtual meetings, and even simple issues like scheduling and timing took some time to work out. But with telehealth being made more normal, all of these issues will hopefully smooth out. We’ll have accessible technologies and we’ll be comfortable using them, which will make virtual appointments more seamless and reliable.
In addition to getting more comfortable with the technology of telehealth, there’s also a real possibility that remote care will make patients more comfortable with the idea of seeking consultations and treatments. In a fascinating article about teletherapy for mental health, it was noted that there’s a positive correlation between access to care and comfort levels seeking it. That is to say, if patients know that healthcare is available, they’re more likely to seek it out. This point was made specifically based on surveys about mental health. But it raises the possibility that as telehealth makes care of all kinds more available, people will, in time, become more comfortable accessing that care than they might ordinarily be.
This gets back to the point about telehealth enhancing care rather than replacing it. To further reassure those who are uneasy about these changes, we want to stress that following the pandemic, remote appointments will not preclude follow-up, in-person appointments. In many cases, telehealth meetings will be used as initial consultations and assessments, while patients who need further attention or in-person assistance will then be scheduled accordingly.
If we do, in fact, move even more toward an era of telehealth, it’s going to be an adjustment for patients and medical professionals alike. For all the reasons listed above, it is still not a change to be feared. There are enough professional doctors and nurses, as well as strong enough technology, to support the transition. As the change occurs, all evidence points to telehealth improving, rather than limiting care quality and options.
Written by Rhia Joanne