The future of healthcare began with a pandemic, and telehealth has come a long way since 2020.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global healthcare landscape, with more than 770 million cases to date, it has also catalyzed fundamental transformations. One of the most notable changes has been the resurgence of the online telehealth industry.
Considered a niche before the pandemic, telemedicine went mainstream and became a lifeline for the medical world during the pandemic. A 78x spike was noted in patients ‘flocking’ to telehealth services from February 2020 to April 2020, just when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March 2020.
Despite a temporary post-pandemic dip in the adoption of telemedicine, it is more common today than it was pre-pandemic. That’s why it’s essential to understand how telehealth has performed since its inception, how it evolved during the pandemic and why it is on the way to becoming integral to our healthcare system.
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How did telemedicine fare before COVID-19?
The history of telehealth dates back to 1955, when the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute pioneered telehealth practices. They used CCTVs and radio-transmitted records to treat patients. Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, organizations like NASA and the Public Health Department invested in telehealth, leading to projects like STARPPAHC. It offered medical care remotely to Native Americans and astronauts. However, these initial attempts proved inefficient, and telehealth saw limited adoption.
Moreover, a US study found that in the pre-pandemic era, telehealth faced several issues, including reluctant patients and health workers, inconsistent reimbursement, technological limitations and complex privacy regulations.
Despite challenges, 76% of US hospital systems used one or more forms of telemedicine by 2018, with radiology, psychiatry and cardiology leading the way. As per the study, although clinicians were concerned about personal rapport with patients and quality of care, patients seemed positive and stated benefits such as convenience, affordability and improved outcomes.
The evolution of telehealth from 1950s experiments to pre-pandemic popularity paved the way for its post-COVID resurgence.
The pandemic and the rapid growth of telehealth services
As the spread of the virus across the globe overwhelmed healthcare systems worldwide, the need for alternative medical care became urgently apparent. Fears of infection discouraged patients from visiting hospitals or clinics, creating a crisis that telemedicine was prepared to address.
In this critical moment, telehealth emerged as a lifeline for both patients and healthcare providers. Telehealth visits experienced an unprecedented surge as in-person consultations became increasingly risky. Telemedicine apps and virtual health platforms witnessed an overwhelming demand. Patients could now consult with healthcare professionals from the safety of their homes, reducing the strain on hospitals and minimizing the risk of virus transmission.
Additionally, real-world examples, like NYU Langone Health reporting a 683% increase in telemedicine visits and Chinese provider JD Health experiencing a tenfold surge in telemedicine usage, illustrate the rapid transformation of healthcare delivery during the pandemic.
The practicality of telehealth in these conditions was not just convenient — it was life-saving.
It enabled individuals to seek medical attention and advice without compromising their health or the health of others. This shift marked a turning point for telehealth, demonstrating its indispensable role in delivering care during crises.
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Non-COVID applications of telemedicine
As the technology and its use progress, telemedicine’s utility extends far beyond COVID-19 treatment. Several telehealth platforms provide consultations for ailments ranging from a paper cut to poor mental health at patients’ convenience and affordable costs. The applications of telehealth include but are not limited to:
- Primary care consultations: Telehealth covers several basic physical complaints and provides remote consultations and prescriptions. Examples include telepathology, telenursing, telecare telepharmacy, etc.
- Chronic disease management: The medical IoT allows healthcare providers to conduct remote patient monitoring (RPM) for chronic disorders. Patients with smart medical devices can measure and send vital readings to their doctors automatically.
- Specialist consultations: Telehealth services are also available for consulting specialists for specific disorders such as skin disease, eye infections, heart disorders, drug abuse, etc. Such services are offered through teledermatology, teleophthalmology, telecardiology and telerehabilitation.
- Mental health support: Remote mental health consultations are common these days with telepsychiatry. It includes direct patient-psychiatrist interaction, support for other clinicians and secure sharing of medical information via live video, audio, or secure file transfer.
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Post-COVID telehealth scenario
Despite the incredibly rapid adoption of telehealth during the pandemic, challenges and criticism hindered its acceptance post-pandemic. However, it has been proved beyond doubt that the benefits of telemedicine far outweigh the initial challenges and skepticism it faces.
Overcoming the challenges and criticism
Since day one, telemedicine has faced numerous hurdles, with feasibility, technology, privacy and regulations under severe criticism. Skeptics doubted if it could match in-person care. Technology limitations, especially in rural areas, created concerns about accessibility and quality.
Privacy issues were a genuine concern, particularly regarding the secure handling of patient data during remote consultations. Moreover, evolving telehealth regulations caused uncertainty about earnings, licensure and interstate practice.
However, telehealth providers and policymakers have risen to these challenges. Regulatory changes spurred by the pandemic have eased legal complications and expanded telehealth’s reach. Ongoing improvements in technology infrastructure bridge the digital divide, helping more individuals. Robust data security measures effectively address privacy concerns.
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The future of telehealth
Telemedicine is set to become healthcare’s core, driving compelling advancements and improvements. With a CAGR of 19.7%, the global telehealth industry is estimated to reach $504.24 billion by 2030 from $142.96 billion in 2023.
Moreover, an AAMC report has estimated a physician shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. Thus, it is crucial to fast-track the development of telehealth services to lighten the burden of traditional healthcare.
As we look ahead, it’s evident that telehealth is here to stay and expand its horizons further with enhancements in wearables and remote monitoring devices. Also, telemedicine will expand beyond the treatment of chronic diseases and mental conditions to cover a wider range of diagnoses, treatments and services.
Telehealth’s future promises personalized medicine, better outcomes and efficient, high-quality care. As a society, we must embrace telehealth as an integral part of our healthcare system and continue to invest in its development.
Joseph Ereyi is a finance and tax expert with a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He’s a devoted husband and father of two, who balances his professional life with a love for sports. Joseph enjoys playing basketball, staying active with regular workouts, and indulging his passion for golf. He’s also the proud founder of 24Hr Doc, reflecting his entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to healthcare innovation.