So far, telemedicine has been developing very slowly. Even though adequate technological solutions have been available for a long time, there are other obstacles in the way:
- reimbursement models favouring personal doctor’s appointments;
- issues related to personal and medical data security;
- the fear that contact between the doctor and the patient will be dehumanized;
- the fact that teleconsultations may be regarded as a poor substitute for a doctor’s appointment.
Despite its promising advantages, telemedicine has not gained mass popularity, as had been hoped by the enthusiasts of digital health solutions.
That was true, at least, until the beginning of 2020. Due to the rapidly growing number of coronavirus-infected patients, initially in China and then all over the world, doctors and patients were forced to face a new reality almost overnight. The pandemic has turned the established order on its head, reshuffled values, and radically shifted our point of view. When protecting your own health and the health of your loved ones requires isolation, you have no other option than to switch to digital services. But it does not apply solely to healthcare. It includes canceled concerts, soccer matches that can only be watched online, and museums are offering virtual tours. Instead of going to a restaurant, you have to have food delivered to your doorstep. A walk around the town has been replaced by surfing the Internet and exercising on a yoga mat. Home-office has become the only office. Hardly anyone has the impression that they do these things because they like it that way. A sense of coercion and adjustment dominates us to an extraordinary situation, but all we can do is hope it ends as soon as it began.
An artificially accelerated change
History shows that pandemics change societies and their behavior for an extended period of time. The sense of danger triggers different mechanisms of thinking and functioning, which will stay with us even when everything goes back to normal. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will pass, similarly to other ones from the past. All epidemiologists agree on that. However, it will take us long months, or maybe years, to go back to normal.
It is time to realize: telemedicine isn’t a worse substitute for face-to-face visits
Today, the law is being rapidly amended to enable the reimbursement of telemedical services, which are becoming equated with services provided in the doctor’s office. When our priorities changed, discussions on data safety were put on the back burner. Telemedical advice systems have observed a few hundred percent increase in the number of installations. The same goes for mobile applications that establish a video connection between the patient and the doctor. Under normal conditions, it would probably have taken us many years for digital health systems to become so widely used. Suddenly, we have found ourselves in the future of healthcare, but by coercion rather than our own free will.
When the world finally shakes off this new crisis, many regulations introduced on the spur of the moment will surely be canceled. Still, some telemedical systems and applications installed on computers and smartphones will remain. Most of the patients will go back to traditional doctor’s appointments, but remote medical advice has already entered public awareness as a viable alternative. Many patients have tried it and were won over by it. Not everybody will appreciate it, but the most important thing is to test this technology yourself. Moreover, we can see that telemedicine is an alternative that makes sense.
The end of an era in healthcare
One of the positive lessons that everyone should learn from the coronavirus pandemic is social responsibility. It is the responsibility for our own health, for the health of the relatives and society in general, for not overburdening the healthcare system. When we have a cold or flu, we do not necessarily need to take public transport to the doctor’s office, sit in a waiting room full of people, and infect others on the way or, worse still, infect doctors. In this case, we could just as well make use of teleconsultations, stay home, get an electronic prescription, and an electronic sick note. It is a commonsensical and mature approach, which additionally reduces the burden on the healthcare system.
There are health services which can successfully be provided remotely, without detriment to their quality. In the times of constant economic growth and prosperity, we had the impression that healthcare was made of rubber and could be stretched infinitely. Also, since we paid our contributions, we could use it as much as we wanted, simply because we deserved it. We took doctors’ precious with trivial matters, even though other patients had to wait in a line because of that. This attitude is as self-centered as emptying the shelves during a pandemic, when we think only about ourselves. This attitude leaves no room for respect towards doctors and their time, as well as the fact that there are people who need help more than we do.
But current circumstances in which telemedicine is developing so rapidly might turn against it. After all, we cannot rule out a scenario in which telemedicine will have to bear the stigma of a pandemic for years to come and will be associated by patients with an emergency substitute used in the times of major crises. In that case, instead of witnessing rapid development in telemedicine, we might paradoxically bring it to a halt.