Telemedicine – The Benefits and Challenges That Lay Ahead

Benefits of Telemedicine

The term telemedicine is not new; it has been around for some time now and the pandemic has generated renewed interest and highlighted the advantages that telemedicine has to offer. Before we go further, let us understand what exactly telemedicine is.

Telemedicine is an umbrella term that includes all the ways in which we use technology to connect with doctors thus eliminating the need to go in person. Messaging, e-mailing, video conferencing, etc. all come under telemedicine.

We have all been using technology in relation with medicine – do we all not Google symptoms of an illness or look for remedies to common non-serious conditions. But when we need a doctor’s opinion, we have to go in person for a check-up. This is what telemedicine will help with. It will bring down the number of physical visits we need to make to a hospital.

Benefits of Telemedicine

To access telemedicine, all that is needed is a reliable internet connection and a phone/computer or some other equivalent device. Listed below are some of the benefits of telemedicine:

Saves Time:

  • By taking commuting out of the equation, significant time savings can be made.
  • It will also save on fuel costs and mothers with children are saved the hassle of finding child care options.

Rural Access:

  • Our rural population is often denied the services available in urban areas.
  • Considering the travel involved, many people do not make the journey unless essential and this often results in them presenting at an advance stage of the medical condition.

Helpful for the Elderly and Physically Disabled:

  • Many older adults are dependent on their family or caregivers to take them to a hospital. The same is the case for a physically disabled person.
  • With telemedicine, this reliance on another person is overcome.

The Convenience Factor:

  • There is no denying that telemedicine is a convenient option for working professionals who are unable to take a day off to go to the hospital.
  • Working professionals often postpone check-ups.
  • With telemedicine, they can communicate with a doctor quickly and get a better understanding of the condition afflicting them.
  • Ascertaining the condition will remove undue mental stress and based on the doctor’s advice, they can arrange for future check-ups in person if needed.

Reduces Risk of Infection:

  • This benefit of telemedicine was most visible during the pandemic with people being advised to spend as much time at home as possible. This was to reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19.
  • However, this benefit can apply to normal circumstances too.
  • Most hospitals are crowded spaces and by eliminating the need to get exposed to that atmosphere, the risk of contracting any kind of air-borne condition reduces significantly.
  • Telemedicine protects doctors too from infectious diseases.

Savings in Cost for Health Care Providers:

  • Telemedicine reduces the need for huge waiting areas in private clinics.
  • This is helpful for doctors who have space constraints.
  • The money they save by opting for a smaller area can be used for more important purposes like better infrastructure or equipment.

Challenges That Need to Be Addressed

Upgradation of Infrastructure

  • While infrastructure in metros and cities might be up to the standards required for telemedicine, the same is not the case for rural areas.
  • A survey that was done to calculate internet’s accessibility in India showed that only 36% of our population has access to the internet.
  • This figure drops even lower when it comes to rural women accessing internet.
  • Thus, even though smart phones are widely used, people accessing the net through it is still low.
  • The other infrastructure challenge we face is the quality of the internet connection.
  • Even when we do have access to the net, issues like slow speed, bad connectivity, etc. crop up making telemedicine a hassle for all concerned.
  • In India, whenever there is hike in net usage, the quality drops considerably. To address this problem, India has to upgrade infrastructure (like laying more fiber-optic cables) to cater to increasing net usage.
  • When these problems are not addressed, the quality of the service offered through telemedicine will be below par and patients will not be satisfied with the experience.

Orienting Doctors

  • There is no formal education for doctors till now to get them oriented towards offering telemedicine services.
  • It is all based on trial and error and improving based on that.
  • We need to make telemedicine a part of the medical curriculum for them to be able to get a complete understanding of it.
  • Many of the older doctors shy away from using telemedicine because they are not comfortable with it.
  • By coming up with short term courses and guiding them through the process, they too can be made to adopt telemedicine.
  • There is no denying that telemedicine consultation involves doctors learning extra soft skills too for effective patient management.
  • For example, the doctor cannot examine the patient himself. This means he will have to depend on someone examining the patient at the other end and communicating the answers to him. This involves a skilled health care worker at the other end.
  • Communication skills take on a whole new meaning with telemedicine as extra effort is needed to communicate the instructions clearly to the patient.

Protecting Patient Information

  • There is concern about patients’ personal information not being kept secure.
  • Ensuring data privacy is most important and ways have to be devised to keep the data secure.
  • The Government should impose strict rules when it comes to this to safeguard all information.

Taking the Next Step

Adoption of telemedicine will benefit everyone provided the challenges mentioned above are addressed. A survey conducted in South India (among patients with diabetes who were treated via telemedicine), had most of the patients responding that they were satisfied with the service. A small percentage did say they missed the in-person visits but by fine tuning the communication aspect of telemedicine, this too can be overcome.

When our rural population gets access to qualified doctors, quackery will definitely reduce. By focusing on removing gender bias and raising awareness on the availability of telemedicine, our people can have access to qualified doctors irrespective of where they reside. Telemedicine can make quality healthcare available to all.