Rapidly changing the landscape of healthcare, telehealth has gained widespread popularity in the past few years, giving millions of people around the world the ability to meet with their medical professionals from home via their computer, tablet or smartphone. And never has it been more necessary than it is now.
Telemedicine isn’t anything new. In fact, The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that the initial form of it was first used in the 1950s and ’60s. But chances are, like many others, 2020 may have been your first hands-on experience with it.
According to Medical Economics, a recent study by Doctor.com showed that telehealth appointments were up 33% at the beginning of 2020 from 2019. Obviously, that percentage will have skyrocketed after last year’s pandemic statistics are folded in. As the leader of a global online hearing care company, I can attest to the fact that one of the areas that had to expand quickly to offer a telehealth solution was hearing care. Many medical professionals and organizations that hadn’t already made the shift to offering virtual medicine prior to Covid-19 found themselves scrambling in 2020 to figure out how to quickly and safely expand their service model.
Believing that teleaudiology was part of the future of hearing care, we’ve been experimenting with our virtual experience for the past five years. We found the hearing care environment in Asia was a great place to focus our early energy, as there was a shortage of audiologists and it was difficult for customers to travel to the limited locations. At the same time, in other markets, we discovered that customers weren’t comfortable receiving care or being seen on video. But in 2020, that changed, even for customers aged 60-plus. Perhaps the experience of using tools like FaceTime and Zoom to connect with their grandkids helped pave the way and break down those barriers.
Telehealth allows licensed providers to conduct certain tests virtually so that the patient never has to leave their home. Not only does this ensure the safety and health of the patient — notably during the age of social distancing — it also allows people all over the world who don’t have transportation or easy access to certain types of care to obtain the same level of care at home. While this was a big issue long before this pandemic, Covid-19 just happened to shine a brighter light on the issue.
Facing Telehealth Challenges Head-On
While I’m thrilled that providers can now use telehealth to help bridge the gap for those who need it most, there are still some challenges when it comes to serving a global community. We identified the following as two major hurdles early on. Other telehealth providers will likely face the same and need to implement solutions to ensure those who need care are never without access.
• Internet connectivity is one of the largest challenges telehealth providers around the world face today. Unfortunately, from a patient perspective, not everyone has access to high-speed internet and Wi-Fi to be able to connect from home. One way to tackle this across the globe is to send tablets that connect directly to cell service through the local wireless network, rather than operating solely through WiFi. This has been our approach, and our IT department is also able to remote into the tablet while the customer is using it to help them identify the best connection.
• The reality of telehealth is that some medical concerns do require in-person visits. There is an obvious loss of physicality with remote solutions where the doctor can’t touch or feel, or as in our industry, conduct certain aspects of a hearing test in person. For example, a comprehensive hearing exam requires a specialist to look inside your ear canal. Therefore, telehealth companies must create solutions that allow partner providers to conduct certain tests through tablets and digital tools that can be sent to customers in advance of their appointment.
We’ve discovered that by mirroring in-person visits as much as possible, telemedicine customers actually have more success from the comfort of their own homes. They’re more comfortable physically, allowing them to relax and open up to the provider. We continue to research and implement new ways to help everyone get access to the care they need to live well.
Health providers must be able to provide ease-of-use for consumers in order for them to feel comfortable and for remote solutions to be successful. By offering a telehealth solution and removing health care barriers — lack of transportation, distance to care, appointment wait times, travel time, fear of being exposed to sick patients — I believe people around the world will feel encouraged and motivated to pursue care at a faster rate in the years to come, so they can protect themselves and their loved ones. Telehealth truly is the future of care.