How are you coping with the COVID-19 outbreak?
The coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe has had a major impact on the way that we live our daily lives. From those who have lost their livelihoods to those now educating their children at home by day and trying to hold down fulltime jobs by night, life is fraught with unexpected difficulties. And that’s all against a backdrop of each trip out of the house being potentially fatal.
Does anyone really remember how simple normal life used to be?
For the healthcare sector, normal life certainly seems a distant memory. Healthcare workers are under immense strain, with hospitals around the world at breaking point and staff facing grave health risks every time they go to work.
So, what can we do to help ease their load? Projects like the NHS Nightingale are showing what can be achieved when there’s enough political will. Social distancing measures are also making a difference, as is the policy of encouraging those suspected of having the coronavirus of isolating at home, rather than heading straight to their nearest health centre.
The effectiveness of social distancing, in particular, is causing many countries to consider the advantages of using telehealth systems. In the face of a sustained, long-term lockdown with periodic relaxations, the coming together of the public and private sectors to create a telehealth system becomes increasingly appealing.
Telehealth services are easy to access and come with no need for face-to-face contact. As such, they could play a major role in how we handle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
What Is Telehealth?
Telehealth vs telemedicine… the terms are often used interchangeably and mean much the same thing but not quite! What are telehealth services? Telehealth services are healthcare services that are delivered using telecommunications technology. According to the California Telehealth Resource Center:
“Telehealth is a collection of means or methods for enhancing health care, public health, and health education delivery and support using telecommunications technologies.”
If you have private health insurance, you may well already be able to access telehealth services. Video consultations with private GPs are often available to those who can pay to jump the NHS queues.
What is telemedicine? Telemedicine, meanwhile, is the delivery of clinical services using that same technology.
How does telemedicine work? Telemedicine sees clinicians interact with patients through telephone and video calling services. Using online doctor consultation processes, they can diagnose and treat patients from a remote location.
Telemedicine can also refer to healthcare professionals interacting with each other, for example when a general practitioner sends photographs or video to a specialist for their opinion.
Reading and watching are like apples and oranges. You can’t compare. Still, here’s a video instead! How do you like them apples?
Pros of Deploying a Telehealth System
Telehealth allows patients to connect with medical staff over the phone or via video for their initial consultations, rather than attending GP appointments. Telehealth services also allow for ongoing treatment and follow up appointments in many instances. There are multiple benefits to doing so.
By using mobile laboratory arrangements for healthcare professionals and eliminating the need for physical premises at which patients attend appointments, the service model cuts out some major expenses. The lower cost of telehealth is therefore a major part of the appeal.
The mobile lab arrangement can also help to alleviate hospital congestion, by using a technological solution to free up frontline staff. Telemedicine doctors can determine which patients should stay at home and which should go to hospital, meaning that the staff within the hospitals can dedicate their focus to those in most dire need.
The NHS 111 approach to the coronavirus diagnosis is an example of telehealth services in action. Patients are able to access medical advice over the phone, with those who are worried about their symptoms talking through the best way to access physical healthcare facilities if needed. Qualified call handlers can advise on everything from self-isolating procedures to coronavirus testing.
COVID testing, at this stage, is not something that can be performed as part of an online consultation. However, plenty of other services can be provided via the internet – not just for coronavirus but in relation to all manner of other health conditions.
During the coronavirus pandemic, another major advantage of telemedicine is its ability to save the lives of frontline healthcare workers. By reassuring those with non-urgent COVID-19 symptoms that they can stay at home, telehealth doctors can help to slow the pace of the virus spreading, including reducing the risk of frontline staff becoming infected. Not only that, but by diagnosing and treating patients remotely, telemedicine doctors can help to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers.
Challenges of Telemedicine
Of course, telemedicine is not a perfect solution. There are instances where a patient’s condition is harder to assess by video than it is during a face-to-face consultation.
Not only that, but telehealth services often can’t deliver the same depth of personal connection that a family GP can. While this might seem to be a minor point on the surface, when one considers the intensely personal nature of some health issues, and the trust required to discuss them honestly with a healthcare professional, it does become more relevant.
Maintaining a Network of Doctors and Healthcare Professionals
Telehealth services, just like traditional medical centres, need to maintain a network of qualified doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. The key difference is that telemedicine providers don’t need to rely on their clinicians living in one particular area.
This means that telehealth providers can deliver a global solution when it comes to building their medical staff networks. This is just the same advantage that Tomedes has when providing our language solutions. Those providing our translation services form a network that extends around the globe. Their inclusion in that network is based on their skill with languages and their experience, not their physical location.
Delivering a telemedicine service is not without its technical challenges. Those using the service – both clinicians and patients – need access to a well-maintained platform that delivers on the technical front.
That platform also needs to protect the data of those using it. Confidentiality is extremely important in the healthcare sector, so the system must have robust security measures in place in order to protect patients’ data (just as physical healthcare services must).
Of course, the answer to solving any technical concerns is ensuring that the service in question has sufficient resources – just as it is with funding a face-to-face healthcare system. Without sufficient funding in place, any healthcare service will struggle, no matter what the format of its delivery may be.
Creating a Telehealth System
It’s not cheap to set up a telehealth system. While physical premises aren’t required in the same way that they are with traditional medical services, there are still plenty of costs involved.
Setting up mobile laboratories is a key element of providing a successful telehealth system. What is a mobile laboratory? It is a healthcare service on wheels that can travel to places where disease outbreaks occur.
Packed with technical kit, mobile labs can perform a huge range of functions, from research and education to analysis and monitoring. They can be kitted out to perform very specific functions – such as COVID-19 testing.
A single doctor can be in charge of multiple mobile laboratories, while they should be efficient enough to be run by at least three people.
The online element of providing telehealth services is complex to set up. The platform needs to address issues of patient care, logistics and billing, all while protecting patient confidentiality.
Not only that, but mobile telemedicine platforms need to be integrated seamlessly into the mobile laboratories to which they link. Creating such setups carries a significant cost – hence telehealth services being more likely to be run by global enterprises (often partnering with public bodies) rather than well-meaning but underfunded local and community organisations.
Those developing telehealth services must also ensure that the platform they present to patients is one that factors in those individuals’ backgrounds and understanding. The front-end of the system needs to be intuitive and easy to use. If it’s not localized to suit individual user groups’ needs, it runs the risk of excluding entire groups of at-risk patients.
Localization in this context doesn’t just mean ensuring that telehealth apps and websites are usable, but also that they are integrated with local telephone/cellular systems. An oversight in this area could end up being a major barrier to successful delivery.
This is why localization is one of the key services provided by Tomedes’ Crisis Communication Center. This multilingual virtual communications agency delivers remote and video interpretation services, 24/7 customer support and translation, localization and transcreation services. Users have a wealth of linguistic expertise at their fingertips, including access to certified medical translators from around the world.
Telehealth services often have the added complication of needing to be available in multiple languages. Many countries are home to domestic populations who speak more than one language natively. Papua New Guinea’s 5.5 million inhabitants, for example, together speak a staggering 820 languages.
This is where remote interpretation services come into their own. It’s possible to provide medical translation and medical interpretation through precisely the same technologies that telehealth services are delivered. For a full explanation of how over the phone interpreting services work, you can click the link below.
Combining a telemedicine provider with a language service provider that can deliver professional medical translation and interpretation means that the former can work with patients who speak a wide range of languages, without any fundamental changes to the telehealth service’s setup.
Such language solutions can massively increase the reach of telehealth services, increasing their efficacy in terms of both connecting with customers and reducing pressure on frontline healthcare services.
Read more: Phone Interpreters: Remote Interpretation in the Time of Pandemics
Incentives for Development
There are plenty of incentives for the development of telehealth services in countries around the world. The main incentive at the moment, at a global level, is to present loss of life. The more we can conduct interactions with the medical profession remotely, the greater the chance of slowing and eventually stamping out the novel coronavirus.
As such, individual countries are looking at how they can incentivise the private sector to engage with the public sector in order to deliver effective, professional telehealth services. Various approaches are being taken, with different countries tackling the matter in their own unique ways, just as one might expect from such a diverse global community.
Ultimately, governments need to do all they can to reduce the spread of COVID-19 right now. However, they are also obliged to consider the longer-term use of any systems that they implement. This means that incentives such as those for the maintenance and production of equipment, for example, need to tie in with long-term viability strategies.
Of course, while we’ve focused on the health-related side of the coronavirus in this article, its economic impact also cannot be ignored. With businesses closed and families unable to work due to childcare responsibilities, many countries’ economies have gone into freefall.
This means that any measures they introduce in order to combat the spread of COVID-19 also need to be weighed up carefully in financial terms. Yes, money can always be found when the need is urgent enough, but that doesn’t mean that governments are happy to splash the cash without a detailed strategy in place. Instead, many require telehealth service companies to consider the longer-term, post-coronavirus impact of the structures that they are putting in place.
This means planning to ensure that the services aren’t solely useful during the coronavirus pandemic. In the same way that countries need legacy strategies in place for structures built for international sporting contests, so too will telehealth services brought in as a result of the current pandemic need to show how they will face the future. Although, given the black swan event nature of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s not unfair to assume that it will fundamentally alter the way we think about our medical services from now on.