Nothing has accelerated the take-up of virtual health services more than Covid-19, so are we looking at lasting changes in consumer health care behaviour? asks Dr Sneh Khemka, VP of Population Health, Aetna International.
With the legacy of lockdown still fresh in our minds, many simple tasks have suddenly become much more complicated. Activities that we previously took for granted in the western world, such as visiting the doctor to access everyday treatments, are now clouded by concerns around social distancing and the risk of infection.
Fortunately, we live in a digital age. The world may have suffered a serious setback, yet technology is providing the health and well-being industry with more options than ever before.
Putting technology to the test
Telemedicine has been around for some time now but, ironically, it was only when Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill that individuals and businesses started to realise the true value of this provision. With the help of smartphones, virtual health services allow people to book consultations and speak to doctors as often as they like, by telephone or video call. In some cases, they can also get prescriptions, referrals and treatment plans sent directly to their phones too.
Rather than postponing appointments or delaying treatments, telemedicine means that people have been able to continue to access the health care support they need, without ever leaving the house. For anyone living alone through lockdown, dealing with a chronic illness or worrying about a family member, this will have been a route to a much-needed lifeline, offering a great deal of reassurance during a difficult time from the comfort and safety of their own front room.
In my experience, when people do give telemedicine a go, they rarely look back. It’s something I’m starting to see more and more with our own customers. Last year, for example, we had a young woman arrange a video consultation after having a dry cough for several months. This was prior to Covid-19, so there was no need to be too alarmed, but she was getting increasingly worried because the symptoms weren’t going away. To put her mind at ease, she booked a video consultation.
After asking a few medical history questions, the doctor discovered that she’d been to several physical clinics about the same complaint before. She wasn’t a smoker so had been prescribed a number of medications, including a high dose of steroids, which hadn’t worked. When the virtual examination showed no signs of respiratory or ENT problems either, it led the doctor to correctly diagnose her with gastro-oesophageal reflux – a common condition for young people.
Remember, the assessment was all done by video call. But by asking the right questions and conducting a thorough virtual examination, it was possible to diagnose a condition that previous doctors had missed. The woman was prescribed new medication, which ultimately resolved the problem. And when she next had a health worry, it won’t surprise you to learn she turned directly to a virtual health consultation again.
What’s particularly interesting here is the holistic approach of the doctor. By taking the time to ask detailed questions and review the symptoms thoroughly, she was able to find a solution that had eluded so many others. In many ways, this is what makes telemedicine unique. Doctors are encouraged to take as much time as they need to fully understand the symptoms, and it seems to be paying off.
However, when you’re dealing with health and well-being, it isn’t easy to alter habits. People find it hard to believe that the same quality of care is possible without being physically in front of a GP, which can lead to reticence in booking virtual consultations. Nonetheless, when you see the meticulous process that virtual doctors go through, you start to understand how they can be so precise.
Embracing the new normal
When Covid-19 was categorised as a pandemic in March, many health care organisations started to promote their telemedicine services as a viable alternative to face-to-face consultations. The need for no contact provided a whole new perspective, and proved to be a real turning point in terms of usage and attitude. For some, it was also a source of comfort – we received many calls from members in rural areas of India, for example, who were lacking reliable information and therefore felt very scared. A call with a professional medical practitioner who could relay the latest guidelines on hand hygiene and social distancing offered some much needed reassurance.
We also received calls from people concerned that they had coronavirus symptoms but were stuck abroad due to lockdown measures, and were either not familiar with the health care system or were too scared to leave their accommodation. In these situations, virtual health consultations could assess the likelihood of the virus or diagnosis other illnesses – a case in point is a 62 year old English woman, trapped in Italy, whose breathlessness was actually acute bronchitis for which inhalers and other medications were required.
With the service more accessible, people are starting to realise that video consultations are both more convenient than face-to-face appointments and just as effective or in some cases, even more so. When you think about it, of course, technology is being used effectively in all aspects of the modern world so there’s no reason why health and well-being should be any different. Covid-19 has simply been the catalyst that that made people sit up and take notice.
Progressing in the right direction
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of telemedicine is that, when people finally get round to using the service, they choose to stick with it. There are plenty of plus points for businesses too. Any company that’s looking to reduce absence, increase productivity and cause minimal disruption to its working schedules, only has to look at the numbers. Our latest figures confirm that 86% of employees who use virtual consultations save themselves time away from the workplace – with an average of almost 4 hours saved by every appointment.
If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that, in the interest of our health and well-being, we sometimes have to change and adapt to the situation around us. Telemedicine is a prime example of how digital innovation can give us more options. It’s already proving an invaluable tool to help people navigate Covid-19 and giving us a glimpse of how health care might look in the not too distant future. And in my opinion, we’re looking at a change that will be long-lasting in consumer health care behaviour.
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