Digital healthcare has been a slowly growing area of healthcare since the dawn of the millennium. There had been clusters of virtual care services across the world, but the model had been largely resisted by healthcare providers who believed in the conventional model of healthcare. Then the pandemic struck and redefined the norm.
In the wake of the pandemic, there has been mass adoption of virtual healthcare. The coronavirus restrictions led to limited access to healthcare via traditional hospital visits, and stakeholders had to leverage digital innovations. This led to the rapid adoption of telemedicine platforms for most non-emergency care services.
By the end of the first quarter of 2020, telemedicine consultations in the U.S. climbed more than 150 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Healthcare providers partnered with AI firms and tech companies to build digital systems for COVID-19 screening and treatment, e-triage of patients, and remote patient monitoring. It became new dawn for healthcare, as the pandemic pushed the limits of innovative health care.
More than two years since the pandemic disrupted healthcare across the globe, many healthcare providers are expanding their telemedicine platforms or integrating automated solutions to cater to the health needs of more patients worldwide and as a way to revive the hard-hit medical travel business.
Virtual care helps to solve three key problems in healthcare: the rapidly growing prevalence of chronic diseases, rising costs of care, and the barriers of distance and long wait times. Stakeholders, including health providers and payers, are beginning to come to terms with the potential of these virtual platforms to lower healthcare costs significantly and improve clinical outcomes.
Medical tourism key players, including Thailand’s Bumrungrad Hospital and Cleveland Clinic, have also launched virtual health bookings to improve domestic care and facilitate pre and post-operative care for international patients. These apps allow healthcare providers to perform pre-operative clinical examinations and evaluations before international patients book a surgery trip.
Using virtual health technology, healthcare providers can leverage AI-driven closed-loop systems as well as synchronous communication tools that integrate patient monitoring devices, such as an electrocardiogram, spirometer, and electroencephalogram, to track patients’ treatment progress in real-time. This system also allows providers to coordinate follow-up care with other local providers and specialists.
While this digital solution will drive improved healthcare outcomes and overall patient experience, healthcare stakeholders must address some challenges for the model to thrive.
While telehealth may be a potentially efficient lever for boosting health outcomes, it risks being stunted by rigid legal challenges. For example, in the United States, physicians are meant to be licensed to practice in a given state; since virtual care cuts through geographical barriers, these regulatory factors may complicate the telemedicine architecture.
On an international scale, regulatory frameworks may make it difficult for patients to receive care in their home countries by doctors in another country. For example, although there are no specific laws on telemedicine in Mexico, the regulatory framework guiding conventional medicine practice covers all aspects of health care services, including virtual care monitoring, posing a serious challenge to cross-border virtual care.
Furthermore, in countries like China, providing remote diagnosis and care to patients constitutes the “practice of medicine.” Thus, only limited locally licensed physicians and foreign physicians that hold the Short-Term Foreign Practice License at approved hospitals. This poses a barrier to telehealth operations between international patients in China and medical travel hubs in other parts of the world.
Stakeholders must explore these challenges and rethink policies and legal frameworks regarding inter-country telemedicine practice to scale virtual care services globally.
Virtual care leverages volumes of data to drive patient care, and data management and protection have become a sensitive area as data theft and compromise have ravaged the healthcare landscape over the years. Patients and healthcare payers may be hesitant to adopt virtual care services if data protection is not guaranteed.
Therefore, medical travel providers must acquaint themselves with data regulatory frameworks as it applies to different countries and how these will influence telemedical operations. For instance, in the U.S, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets the rules for managing and using personal health information. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) offers a similar regulation in Europe.
Additionally, virtual care operators should set up systems to protect patient data, including authentication and authorization mechanisms and data encryption algorithms. Patient data are at more risk of theft and breach via virtual platforms than traditional hospital visits, so these systems must be adequately fortified to protect against data compromise.
Telemedicine technology leverages the exchange of large volumes of data to drive patient care, which requires efficient data interoperability. Healthcare providers, therefore, need to take stock of the technology infrastructure, such as a digital front door, electronic health record, and AI software, to facilitate data exchange.
Consequently, health systems will invest in providing AI-driven visual and audio models, such as digital stethoscopes, that allow transmission of heart and lung sounds from any part of the world to remote providers. This also requires access to technical support staff and regular staff training on how to use telehealth technologies.
Telemedicine: Healthcare in the New Normal
The coronavirus pandemic has led to the rapid adoption of virtual care models to facilitate healthcare delivery. Medical travel stakeholders are also beginning to integrate telemedicine infrastructure into patient care systems. However, some challenges may be met in the near future: healthcare providers must address the issues of data security, data interoperability, and availability of the right technology infrastructure to create a model of healthcare that would dominate the post-COVID era.