COVID-19 and Telehealth: Band-aid Fix or Transition to New Virtual Healthcare Model?
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COVID-19 and Telehealth: Band-aid Fix or Transition to New Virtual Healthcare Model?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst like no other for the adoption of new technology, new methods of patient engagement and remote clinical practice. Telehealth has emerged as both a necessity for dealing with this pandemic and an opportunity to transform a sector that has traditionally been slow to change.

This panel looks at the recent COVID-19 pandemic and examines how it has impacted the adoption of new technologies, in particular, Telehealth. What did we learn from this experience? How can we build momentum to continue uptake of this technology? And what does it mean for the future of healthcare delivery?

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Meet Our Panellists

  • Dr Charlotte Middleton (Moderator), GP and Chief Medical Officer, MedicalDirector
  • Cathy Baynie, National President, Australian Association of Practice Management
  • Dr Anthony Brown, Executive Director, Health Consumers NSW
  • Professor Tim Shaw, Director Research in Implementation Science and eHealth, University of Sydney and Director of Research, Digital Health CRC
  • Dr Amandeep Hansra, GP and Digital Health Consultant

Key Insights

Telehealth has been an instrumental tool for managing the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping our practices running. However, this experience has highlighted the health system’s lack of interoperability. The ease and flow we enjoy with other aspects of our digital life isn’t there with digital health.

  • The consumer response to Telehealth has been very positive, particularly among people in rural areas, those needing team-based care and those with mobility issues. While this experience has challenged some assumptions around generational use of technology, e.g. many older people embracing telehealth, it hasn’t worked for everyone. People with dementia and physical disabilities have reported having difficulties using the systems.
  • This pandemic has opened the door to innovation. Up until now we’ve made relatively modest changes using technology, COVID-19 has allowed us to accelerate changes to the way we deliver healthcare.
  • This experience has highlighted some gaps we have in digital health infrastructure e.g. secure messaging wasn’t wide-ranging enough, ePrescribing was not quite ready, and there was no easy way to electronically order pathology tests. It’s also clear that effective sharing of and access to data is another weak link in today’s digital health.
  • It’s important to note this has been an interim measure and is the beginning of a wider reform.

Funded or not, Telehealth is here to stay but it’s only one part of a broader virtual care movement that needs to happen. We need to start thinking in a holistic way about how we use technology to enhance the interaction between consumers and practitioners.

  • We’re in a fortunate position to be able to deliver a new model of care, and we have the opportunity to build in important measures now rather than trying to retrofit them later.
  • Most of the technology we need already exists, we now need to harness it better to reduce the burden on healthcare professionals. We need to invest in custom made platforms to ensure the technology is fit for purpose.
  • It’s essential that we maintain equity in healthcare as we move towards virtual care. We can’t risk creating two tiers of ‘digital-haves’ and ‘digital-have-nots’ in health.
  • Patient experience and patient outcomes need to be carefully considered in any changes to the system. If it isn’t delivering a positive patient experience or outcome, why are we doing it?

Cost remains the biggest barrier to GPs’ adoption of Telehealth, but as the power shifts to consumers, patients are likely to vote with their feet and find healthcare providers that deliver the type of care they’re looking for.

  • Many other industries are now hyper-focused on consumer engagement, and primary health needs to follow suit. It will become about building relationships rather than expecting patients to come to you.
  • The uptake of Telehealth among consumers has shown that people value convenience and low cost. GPs need the support of appropriate funding models to deliver this.
  • It’s important to manage consumer expectations around what can and can’t be done through Telehealth and virtual healthcare delivery.

As we emerge from the wreckage of COVID-19, it’s time to reflect on the effectiveness of our response, and fix some of the fundamental issues so we’re ready for the next challenge that emerges.

  • We need to build on the momentum we’ve generated and not let things slip back to the way they were. There’s definitely an appetite for virtual healthcare delivery among GPs, but they need support in building capacity to deliver this.
  • GPs and patients have done an incredible job at handling the situation with little training or warning, but it’s clear using digital technologies doesn’t come naturally to everybody so ongoing training and support is essential.
  • We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel where we can, and it’s important to look to the overseas experience to inform us, but a lot of what is possible depends on appropriate funding.
  • We should also look to disruptors to see what we can learn about the next frontier in healthcare delivery and how we can challenge the current one-to-one delivery of healthcare.
  • Over the next 3-4 months there will be a lot of research done into how the healthcare system handled this pandemic. That data will be essential in guiding us on the way forward in delivering new models of healthcare.