When you come to think of it, isn’t it a little odd to think how slow the medical services sector has been to take to the digital revolution? We have, after all, had the communication infrastructure in place for decades now.
If we’re banking online, hailing taxis on apps, getting the laundry picked up with a swipe of the screen, using virtual personal trainers to get the most out of our gym sessions, then why aren’t most of us seeing the doctor via a screen, too? In fact, most of us haven’t or wouldn’t even consider it.
The truth is that there are a few different forces of resistance at play here. Skepticism is one. Patients and doctors alike aren’t completely confident of the quality of medical care given and received virtually, yet. Reimbursements and health insurance coverage for virtual visits is still a bit of a grey area, too.
Another reason for resistance is, plain and simply, habit.
We’re programmed to expect a doctor to put a stethoscope to our chests, check our tongues with a wooden stick and shine a light in our eyes before sitting down behind their desks and scribbling us a diagnosis and a prescription. It’s hard-wired into us – that’s what a doctor’s appointment should look like.
Checking your physical self for symptoms is how the doctor found out what was wrong. So removing the whole physical examination aspect, the core of the visit is, of course, a big ask to consider.
Why even consider telemedicine?
Like any service that goes virtual, telemedicine does, of course, come with its benefits. You can see your doctor from the comfort of your home, it saves you commute time and parking hassles, you don’t need time off work to visit the doctor or sit around in waiting rooms thumbing through old magazines.
These are obvious benefits to you as the patient. On a much higher level, for the healthcare industry on the whole, telemedicine is transforming caregiving entirely.
It’s putting medical care in the reach of remote populations, cutting significant costs for healthcare service providers and solves clinics and hospitals the costly problem of no-shows.
But why aren’t people taking to it?
When it comes to the patient-convenience related benefits, the benefits will need to override the fear of misdiagnosis and the question of the quality of medical care in order for more people to try and take to telemedicine.
And as for the overarching big benefits of a healthier, more medically-serviced world – that doesn’t always make a personal impact big enough to make you give it a try.
Sure, telemedicine makes medical care more accessible to many people, but you’ve got a car and you live in the city, so you can just drive to the doctor and have yourself scanned, screened and looked after in person. So why not?
But to present a fair argument, let’s talk results.
There aren’t many studies comparing the quality of care provided virtually versus in-person as of yet, but one study conducted by the researchers of the Cochrane Collaboration has an interesting set of results for us to consider.
As it turns out, according to the study, the use of telemedicine in the management of heart failure leads to similar outcomes as in-person care, and there is also evidence that the management of blood sugar levels is actually better with regular virtual checks.
This does, of course, depend on the virtual healthcare channel that is in question, the experience and expertise of the experts on the other side of the screen, and other factors like severity of the condition required treatment and more.
UAE: To Virtual Care and Beyond!
The UAE is making an active effort towards incorporating virtual care in the national health system. Over the past few years, these efforts had seen some inconsistency, the last 3 years have seen some positive steps in the right direction.
Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre has been delivering healthcare virtually since 2015, and seems to be doing a stellar job.
The scope for telemedicine in the UAE is huge. According to Stephen MacLaren, of Al Futtaim Willis, an insurance provider, Emirati residents were using outpatient and ER services around 12 times per year, making the UAE’s numbers amongst the highest in the world.
It turns out that a lot of these visits to the ER are not even real emergencies – and that’s costing patients, insurance companies and healthcare service providers a lot of wasted time and money. This article (scroll to the ‘Growing demand’ section) does a great job of breaking down the numbers.
So, what’s the verdict?
There is no doubt that telemedicine will become a significant channel for medical care. To convince more people to try telemedicine, the health authorities, medical service providers and doctors will need to make an active effort to remove the doubt around the quality of care that can be provided online.
Once a doctor-patient relationship has been established, for instance, it might be much easier to migrate follow-up interactions to video conferencing. Patients that seek counseling might also be more willing to speak to their caregivers virtually after a few in-person visits.
Only time will tell how quickly and effectively the shift to telemedicine will take place, but with every other aspect of our lives turning more virtual every day, it’s probably safe to say we’re not too far off from a time when in-person doctor visits will become a thing of the past.