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December 9, 2020

Telehealth Today: Challenges & Opportunities

Written by: JBradley


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The practice of telehealth today is exploding to an extent not even optimistic prognosticators could have anticipated in years past. While it was a given that the convenience and capability of new technologies would gradually lead to more dependence on remote healthcare, the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the change to an unfathomable degree. An assessment of the telehealth boom by a West Virginia University associate professor of nursing provided the numbers: Some healthcare facilities are seeing an 8,000% increase in the use of telehealth amidst the pandemic.


Some of this will of course subside as the COVID-19 crisis gradually ebbs away. But even if that’s the case it’s true that we’ll be relying more on telehealth moving forward than we expected at this point. This is generally perceived as a good thing — though it does present challenges and opportunities in equal measure.



Challenges of Telehealth

Beyond the basic difficulties that can come up in individual doctor-patient relationships, the challenges associated with increasing telehealth primarily concern risk assessment.


Legal practice - The professional practice of telehealth can require certain licenses and legal clearances even for medical offices that are already well established. Thus, to avoid potential legal issues, those practicing telehealth have to be careful to clear all relevant red tape.


Digital contingencies - In our article titled ‘Taking Your Practice to Healthcare we mentioned contingency plans as “rule #1” in the process. When you’re practicing telehealth, there is a risk that you’ll experience digital issues like a poor connection, freezing internet, or malfunctioning software. These can be serious issues when you’re trying to conduct patient meetings or convey crucial information, which means it’s vital for healthcare facilities to develop digital contingencies and backups as they move further into telehealth.


Patient data loss - The risk of losing patient data to malfunctioning software or even a cyberattack is also a significant factor in our budding telehealth era. Patients entrust a substantial amount of personal, health, and even financial information to their healthcare providers, and all of this information is newly vulnerable in a telehealth environment. Related companies need to prepare for this vulnerability with reliably secure data transfer, storage, and recovery methods.


Poor documentation - Another risk as we move further into telehealth is that physicians and other healthcare providers will have greater difficulty documenting patient care. This won’t always be the case, but because some telehealth involves self-administered care, and self-monitoring of symptoms or progress, physicians may not always have the clearest picture of how patients are progressing. This is something that has to be handled on a case-by-case basis, but it should be part of the preparation healthcare providers are doing in telehealth situations.


Opportunities in Telehealth

Those risks and challenges are significant, and they’ll need to be managed diligently if telehealth is to be the success we hope it will be over the long term. As mentioned though, this ongoing transition in how we handle patient care is also presenting fascinating new opportunities, from expanding job markets to better coverage of certain conditions.


More healthcare jobs - While it’s unclear if telehealth will necessarily lead to more physicians, administrative and technical jobs are likely to grow in support of expanding remote healthcare practices. These are jobs that don’t require quite the strenuous education of physicians’ work, and for which people can study online, which means many may flock to the workforce quickly as it grows. And to that point, a Maryville University guide to the online masters in health administration programs states that job growth in this field is expected to have grown 17% from 2014 to 2024. That’s a significant figure already, and it’s almost certain to have accelerated due to the pandemic. A lot of people interested in healthcare are going to be seeing job opportunities.


Reaching more patients - Perhaps the main benefit of telehealth is that it allows providers to establish contact and keep in touch with patients that might otherwise be difficult to reach. Busy front-line workers, patients who are geographically remote, or even discharged patients following hospital stays all become more accessible. This is a tremendous opportunity for healthcare facilities to broaden their impact.


Improved Mental Health Care - As noted in HealthTech’s post about telemedicine and mental health, about one in five Americans will experience mental illness in any given year. This is a much higher number than that of those who seek care or are able to access it, and there’s a strong chance that telehealth can change this. There are already indications that more patients in need of mental healthcare will seek it through telehealth, which could lead to a revolution in how we view psychiatric and psychological care.


Even all of these points only scratch the surface of what telehealth may bring about, both in terms of challenges and opportunities. It is clear that we’ve embarked upon significant long-term changes in how we use technology to administer care. And ultimately, the prevailing hope is that the opportunities and benefits will outweigh even fairly substantial risks and concerns.


photo credit: Unsplash

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