Covid-19 has accelerated the uptake of a variety of virtual care services, not least of which where it all began: the telehealth phone call between patient and practitioner.
By Michaela Sheahan, Senior Researcher
As the influence of tech on our lives expands, so too does the reach of digital health – from video check-ups to home-based heart monitors, from skeletal robotics to remote surgery.
With the help of the Centre for Online Health, Centre for Health Services Research at The University of Queensland, Hassell is investigating implications of increased digital healthcare delivery on hospital design. How can we take advantage of this significant change in healthcare delivery to design places and spaces that support individual wellbeing and maintain human connections between clinicians and patients?
In the midst of dealing with infection control issues and community anxiety about Covid-19 through the early months of 2020, Australian healthcare providers delivered the long-anticipated widespread uptake of telehealth consultations.
Between March and May 2020, health practitioners made more than seven million government-funded virtual consultations with patients. Over 90 per cent happened on the phone. (1)
While GPs conducted most of these, hospital telehealth services also grew, as well as allied health, mental health, specialist and nurse practitioner consultations. Similar patterns were experienced around the world.
According to the New York Times, one London-based practitioner declared, “We’ve had ten years of change in one week.” Frost & Sullivan report that demand for telehealth has grown by over 60 per cent in the US in 2020 alone.
What’s to be gained from this significant, and potentially sustained shift in service delivery? Well, as chronic disease and an ageing population increase pressure on hospital space and staff, systems are beginning to show the strain. Staff burnout, bed shortages and stretched emergency departments are common in hospital systems around the world.
What if we could sustain lower numbers of patients fronting up to hospitals in the first place, and then give that space to those that really need it? It sounds simple, but of course, health systems are complex, risk averse and too important to fail. The pandemic is a real time experiment to show where change can be made safely and effectively.
Research shows that despite unfounded fears of compromising confidentiality, safety and patient-doctor relationships, telehealth models can deliver lower mortality and hospitalisation rates across a range of patient groups. These include the elderly, frail and people with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke rehabilitation. (2)
A survey of telehealth patients this year also shows that patients are a lot less reluctant to use, and more satisfied with, the service than might have been expected. (1)