If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s the incredible potential of telehealth. Not only has the technology been instrumental in helping to slow the spread of the virus, but it has also demonstrated its capacity to increase healthcare access to those who might otherwise be unable to obtain consistent, high-quality medical care, including the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and those who live in rural areas.
Nevertheless, for all its advantages, today’s telehealth technologies are far from perfect. But what, exactly, are the problems associated with telehealth, and what can be done to mitigate them?
The Rise of Telehealth
Telehealth certainly was not born with the pandemic. However, in the face of a lethal and highly transmissible virus, healthcare providers, public health officials, and government leaders alike looked to remote health technologies to help keep patients safe at home while ensuring they received the timely care they needed.
For instance, in response to the pandemic, the US federal government significantly expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage of telehealth services, resulting in a surge of elderly, disabled, and low-income patients using the technology.
And while this has been a profound positive for increasing overall accessibility, particularly for traditionally underserved and vulnerable populations, it has also revealed a host of challenges that must be mitigated if the true potential of telehealth is to be realized.
Reliability of Service
One of the most significant challenges facing telehealth clinicians and patients alike is simply patients’ ability to access a strong, reliable signal when attempting to engage in virtual consultations. In rural areas, in particular, patients simply may not have access to a stable, secure, high-speed internet connection.
And this means that the very patient populations most in need of access to telehealth services are also the ones excluded from them. Signal boosters can help to resolve the problem, but they may not be appropriate in all situations. For patients or practitioners living and working abroad, using a signal booster in a foreign country increases potential security risks. In some jurisdictions, these technologies are even prohibited by law.
So, while signal boosters can be tremendously helpful in areas where internet access is spotty, users must do their homework, researching potential risks and restrictions associated with these important tools.
Telehealth in its various forms, from fitness wearables to remote telemedicine consultations, is designed for ease of use by patients. That does not mean, however, that all users will have an easy time harnessing the power of these technologies.
Indeed, some of the most underserved patient populations, including those with dementia or developmental disorders, may have significant difficulty in learning to use the technology. Similarly, patients with physical disabilities may have trouble hearing, seeing, or operating the technology. And patients for whom English is a second language may be barred from the platforms due to linguistic barriers.
This speaks to the reality that telehealth is not, cannot be, and should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Technologists and care providers must be attuned to the diverse and evolving needs of a heterogeneous patient population, working to develop and implement adaptive tools, such as interconnected Internet of Things (IoT) devices, that can ensure equitable access for all.
Similarly, telehealth providers, including travel nurses serving a geographically distributed patient population, must be able to define and deploy solutions to ensure that patients’ individual needs are met. In the case of patients experiencing a language barrier, for example, healthcare providers can use their remote technology, such as legal signal boosters, to establish a remote connection secure and stable enough for patients to access translators who will be able to assist them in receiving the telehealth services they need.
A Growing Shortage
One of the biggest obstacles facing telehealth users may not rest with the technology itself. A particularly pernicious problem affecting the entire healthcare system worldwide is the significant and worsening shortage of healthcare providers.
The good news, however, is that the physician shortage is currently being mitigated by practitioners in related health fields, such as the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP). FNPs are trained to provide many of the same services as the family doctor or the general practitioner. However, the added benefit is that many FNPs are also trained in the provision of telehealth. And that means that, as practitioners in healthcare fields outside of the traditional MD begin to practice telemedicine, patients will have greater access than ever before to on-demand virtual healthcare.
The future of medicine may, indeed, lie in telehealth. But that does not mean that these life-saving technologies are problem-free. From the challenges of lack of access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection to patients’ inability to use the technologies effectively to the impacts of the ongoing shortage of healthcare providers, there are still numerous obstacles to be overcome. With commitment, strategy, and innovation, however, the power of telehealth can and will be realized.