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Coronavirus has boosted the use of telehealth services

The coronavirus pandemic has burdened the healthcare infrastructures of a majority of the nations and led to the death of millions of people worldwide. Social distancing norms and lockdowns imposed by governments have created economic strains on people, and disrupted daily routines. In such a scenario, not many people have the privilege of choosing to opt out of visiting healthcare providers, particularly if they are patients suffering from long-term chronic illnesses. As education and work moved online, healthcare services also joined this shift, with an increase in the use of telehealth services. Healthcare that can be provided remotely has numerous advantages to it – patients can communicate with doctors from the comfort of their homes, and make the administration of healthcare more efficient, given that patients have to schedule appointments with doctors. It can help providers prepare beforehand, in cases where a preliminary overview of the patient’s ailments are required before the appointment, and can also focus resources of clinics/doctors/hospitals in providing specialised care.

Research has shown that telehealth can decrease trips to emergency rooms, while being relatively cheaper than traditional appointments. Telehealth is a lucrative alternative which has gained momentum largely due to the pandemic. Almost every aspect of healthcare, mental, physical and physiological, has moved to the virtual medium. It has helped reduce the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable individuals, while allowing them to access their healthcare providers and simultaneously follow social distancing norms. There has been a rapid surge in the demand for telemedicine for non-urgent care and consultation.

However, this surge has only occurred in a few short months, out of necessity rather than choice. Due to this, regulations have failed to catch up to such services. At the outset, telehealth services raise serious questions of privacy without many governments adequately setting up frameworks or standards of procedures to be adhered to while offering telehealth services. Robust technologies and careful review of privacy policies is required before undertaking the provision of telehealth, given that healthcare information forms part of sensitive data in jurisdictions across the world. The United States has announced new telemedicine regulations, which can be an example for other countries to follow. Moreover, hospitals and physicians are not adequately prepared to handle telehealth services given that it has not been traditionally used before covid-19. Although governments and private players have called for an increased focus on technology to be used in providing services, they must additionally make provisions to build such capacities within hospitals and clinics. In low-income countries, where existing healthcare infrastructure is already fragile, telehealth remains inaccessible and open to exploitation. The pressure to provide telehealth may, in fact, overwhelm health care providers due to its rapid spread in the sector.

However, telehealth services cannot be seen as a substitute for traditional visits and consultations, and cannot be used as a means to avoid going to healthcare experts if when advised to do so. Urgent or intensive care is simply not possible through telehealth, and healthcare providers must make this clear so as to avoid any risks. All in all, telehealth has emerged as a ‘boon’ during the coronavirus pandemic. A world which saw effectively each sector rapidly shut down, survived only because essential sectors such as healthcare could be shifted online due to the advent of telehealth. Telehealth has greatly mitigated the spread of the coronavirus, lessening the burden on the already-exhausted frontline healthcare workers, while providing relief and continuous healthcare access to patients. It is unclear whether coronavirus will be completely eliminated, but in the meantime, telehealth is here to stay. The adaptation of telehealth in low-income countries is now an obstacle that policy-makers and the global community must seek to overcome, to ensure that every individual’s right to life and health is maintained. There is no denying that the future of healthcare is partly digital, but this future needs to be accessed equally by all individuals.