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COVID-19 Action Spotlight: Telehealth

The COVID-19 pandemic has put forward tremendous challenges in all spheres of our economy and society, but no sector has come under greater strain than healthcare. Hospitals and primary care services have been caught in a deadly Catch-22, in which they must treat an exponential number of coronavirus patients while simultaneously taking all actions possible to prevent their facilities becoming superspreader locations. 

While the virus raged through care homes and hospitals at the start of this year, it was clear healthcare providers had to start doing things very differently – and quickly. As early as March, NHS England was advising GPs and primary care providers to replace face-to-face appointments with phone calls and video conferencing. At the time, only 1 percent of GP appointments were carried out by video. Now, just over 50 percent of all consultations are done remotely. Overnight, telehealth has become the backbone of the healthcare system.

The enduring benefit of telehealth has always been that it allows primary care providers a resource-lite ‘triage’ system; a quick, cost-effective means of screening patients ahead of appointments and directing them to the correct provider. This has now become even more pertinent, as it ensures only those in critical need of face-to-face care attend GP surgeries and the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 is minimised. 

Telehealth tech firms have become immediate beneficiaries of this situation. Telehealth firm Push Doctor secured a £20.2 million investment in early July from a number of venture capital firms, including Accelerated Digital Ventures, Oxford Capital, and Draper Esprit. They offer an easy-to-use video appointments app to enable people to ‘talk to an NHS doctor whenever you need’ over smartphone. Rather than being implemented in a top-down fashion by the NHS, Push Doctor has set up partnerships across the country with historically technophobic GP surgeries, and also offers instant 10 minute consultations for £20.

The changes brought on by this pandemic have laid the groundwork for the long-term proliferation of telehealth – and digital health technologies more broadly – at every level of healthcare provision. Not only can physicians and patients communicate synchronously 24/7 using smartphones or webcams, healthcare providers now have the means to obtain detailed travel and exposure histories, integrate local health data with patient information to standardize consulting practices, and even begin building automated screening algorithms for triaging (as some GP practices are already doing). 

There is now a growing trend of remote patient monitoring, where their clinical measurements can be transmitted remotely in real time to a healthcare provider. Inhealthcare is one of the largest telehealth vendors in the UK offering patient monitoring technology. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, their library of more than 100 clinically designed digital health services has been used at scale to help patients manage long-term conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension. They also offer a range of digital care home monitoring tools to reduce unnecessary call-outs and keep residents safe from a distance.

Beyond primary care, the potential for telehealth in other aspects of health provision is boundless. This can be seen in the implementation of telehealth systems in hospital intensive care units. Electronic intensive care unit (e-ICU) monitoring programs, such as that of Philips, enable nurses and physicians to remotely monitor the status of up to 100 patients in ICUs across multiple hospitals using a combination of A/V, predictive analytics, data visualization, and advanced reporting. A five-year study into the impact of this system on critical care patients across 56 ICUs in multiple countries showed eICUs can not only reduce the length of stays or mortality rates in ICUs, but can also significantly reduce costs from ICU-related malpractice claims by up to 90 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a technological overhaul of our entire society, and while the future is still unclear, it’s obvious that telehealth is here to stay.

June 2020

#LTW

June 2021

#LTW