Covid-19 has brought every country’s healthcare system under the radar. Hospitals and medical professionals have been challenged to push themselves to the extreme, adapting to the new requirements and help their country to “flatten the curve”. Given the current situation, it’s clear that telehealth could bring relief to both medical professionals and organisations amidst the burden of this pandemic.
Telehealth (also known as telemedicine or virtual healthcare), is healthcare that’s provided remotely, whether by phone call, video call, or text message. The industry has been around for over a century and in the beginning, it assisted patients in isolated areas where there was a shortage of medical personnel and facilities either by radio or telephone. In UAE, telemedicine was introduced in 2013, where the Department of Health created a detailed framework for the industry. Today, the digital telehealth industry globally, has widely benefited from the recent technological advances and innovations, even more so by the recent pandemic (source).
Although digital health services struggled with adoption and popularity, Covid19 has started to change that. During the pandemic, UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, (TRA) in an effort to facilitate hospitals providing alternative healthcare services, has made accessible six new digital applications, Mind Mina Telemedicine, NextGenGP Telehealth, vSee, OKADOC, doxy.me, and GetBEE (source). Our data indicates that telehealth services put in place in U.S/UK have been already used by 8% of the respondents during the pandemic. However, although 8% is a good start, there is still a long way to go before telehealth becomes mainstream.
Consumers’ perceptions on adopting telehealth
But the question remains: what will it take for telehealth to be embraced from the wider population? Our data shows that consumers’ attitudes towards digital telehealth vary depending on age and income but there are also very varied individual perceptions in regard to in-person doctor appointments. 14% of people aged 24-37 have used the service compared to just 1% of individuals aged 57-64 also known as baby boomers. The same goes when surveyed to see if they are willing to use the service, as older age groups say that are less likely to try a coronavirus telehealth service (42% for 55-64s and 45% for 45-54s). Additionally, income differences account for reluctancy toward digital health services. 63% of higher income groups respondents trust these diagnoses compared to 42% of those in lower income groups.
The patient’s experience itself is another reason why digital telehealth still hasn’t gotten off the ground. On our recent study we found out that 62% of millennials were in favor of in-person health appointments compared to 52% who preferred the video call ones. Among older respondents, only 34% said they preferred video calling appointments. Last but not least, only 28% of the respondents across all age groups said they prefer to contact their doctor via social media or messaging apps.
These demographic differences highlight the potential feeling of marginalization of older people and individuals from lower incomes. The reasons could be due to the lack of access to internet and absence of digital skills that telehealth services require to use them. Additionally, the telehealth industry will have to find a way to effectively simulate the traditional doctor – patient in person relationship, which is a huge part of the experience.
The future of Telehealth
So, with so many obstacles can digital telehealth ever replace elements of the conventional patient journey e.g. medical appointments or sessions? Most importantly, can telehealth be trusted to detect Covid19 symptoms? Our findings suggest that having a previous experience with telehealth services helped to build confidence with it as 66% of those who have used it in the past would trust it again to identify coronavirus symptoms.
Additionally, our findings suggest that the coronavirus, along with mental health issues, migraines and sleep related issues are the leading reasons why people are using telehealth services. Among our respondents, only 50% state that they would use a similar service in the future, a figure that’s we would like to believe that it will grow exponentially in the future given the current situation.
Similarly, in UAE, digital healthcare is on the rise due to the pandemic with patients seeking for help via remote services, both for detecting virus symptoms but also treatment of mental issues which occurred due to lockdown isolation (source). With coronavirus being a game-changer for remote healthcare, both medical practitioners and industry executives agree that digital telehealth offers many opportunities to revolutionize the medical science as we know it. Additionally, they are optimistic that digital healthcare will play a big part in screening a variety of symptoms in the future, among them coronavirus ones (source). Our research findings highlight the importance of building awareness of these services to those who may be unfamiliar with them, to ensure that in the new era, no-one is left behind.
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