When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2019, hospitals around the world were forced to react and adapt in order to continue providing safe and quality care to their patients.
This, in turn, led to the widespread digitalisation in healthcare, with new technologies and systems being put in place to help medical providers better cope with the challenges posed by COVID-19.
In particular, the use of telehealth in hospitals increased significantly, and it’s not hard to see why.
After all, the highly-transmissible nature of the COVID-19 virus meant that most patients – bar those who required critical care – preferred not to visit hospitals and other medical facilities in person, for fear of catching the virus.
Healthcare providers, too, had a responsibility to keep their staff safe from the virus, and reducing the number of in-person consultations helped to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
In Singapore, the Ministry of Health (MOH) had previously outlined its aims to license telemedicine services by June this year – a mark of the importance that such services play in modern healthcare.
But now, with close to 60% of the world population having received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and with global vaccination efforts going strong, there is an expectation that a sense of normalcy will return sooner rather than later.
Indeed, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, had previously expressed his hope that the pandemic can come to an end this year, although the recent Omicron variant may yet push that timeframe back.
Nonetheless, healthcare providers have already begun preparing for the ‘new normal’ and the prospect of an uptick in the return of in-person visits.
The question that many healthcare providers are therefore asking themselves now is: will telehealth continue to remain relevant in 2022 and beyond?
More pertinently, how should healthcare providers view telehealth moving forward? Should more resources be invested into improving their telehealth capabilities? Or would those resources be better used preparing themselves for the expected growth of in-person visits?
For Leona Karnali, CEO of Indonesia’s Primaya Hospital, the answer is simple: telehealth and remote consultations will continue to play a big part in the world of healthcare, even after the pandemic transitions to endemic.
“We believe remote consultation will continue to be widely used even after the pandemic because it is very convenient for both patients and doctors,” said Karnali.
“Thanks to the pandemic, the development of telehealth and digital technology was accelerated. Digital technology has enabled the healthcare industry, including Primaya, to survive in the midst of the pandemic, and will continue to play an important role in the development of healthcare services. The opportunities and possibilities are endless.
“However, we must understand and educate patients on the risks of relying on remote consultation alone. Patients must know to seek immediate help and go directly to the hospital when symptoms persist or worsen before it is too late.
“Nonetheless, telehealth can be helpful for patients to seek prior information before they go to a specific specialist or to get second opinion, although doctors will still need to examine the patient physically to make a proper diagnosis.”
Other healthcare providers that Hospital Management Asia spoke to also expressed their confidence in the value of telehealth beyond the pandemic.
Malaysia’s Aurelius Hospital Nilai told HMA that while some of their patients miss face-to-face interactions, telehealth will still be an important part of their operations, as it allows those who are based in other states, or even overseas, to connect with their trusted doctors. As such, they intend to focus equally on both digital and physical consultations in the coming year, while also remaining committed to finding ways of improving the telehealth experience for their patients.
This is also true for Penang Adventist hospital, who recognised that telehealth remains relevant as some of their patients prefer that mode of consultation.
At Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand, patients who choose to be treated at home are offered care that extends beyond the hospital’s teleconsultation services.
Said Dr Chatchai Arthur Yachantha: “At Bumrungrad International Hospital, we offer various programmes…including at-home care services, telemedicine and also follow-up calls. This is to ensure that our patients receive the maximum health guidance to create fully recovery environment.”
As for Indonesia’s Siloam Hospitals Group, a recent survey of their telehealth patients showed a largely positive response to the service.
The hospital’s Chief Information Officer, Mr Ryanto Tedjomulja, told HMA: “We recently did a survey of the patients who have used Siloam Teleconsultation service in the past six months, and we received an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5.
“So this actually shows that many people feel the experience is good. They find that the doctors are completely focused on them, and it’s more convenient as the medications are be delivered straight to their homes.”
While acknowledging that Siloam has seen “more patients coming back to the hospitals” in recent months, Tedjomulja believes there will still be a demand for telehealth in future.
“Yes, the number of teleconsultations was lower compared to the peak in July (2021), but there are many patients that are still opting for teleconsultation, even during the period when the COVID-19 situation had stabilised,” revealed Tedjomulja.
“So, I think teleconsultation will continue to be an option for cases that can be addressed remotely.”
Having said that, Tedjomulja believes healthcare providers will now have to “look at the bigger picture” and explore ways to evolve their telehealth services so as to better serve the needs of their patients.
“The concept of telehealth, in general, is a very broad subject,” Tedjomulja explained. “Teleconsultation, for example, which everyone is talking about during pandemic, is just one part of the patient journey.
“I think hospitals should now explore how the online experience can be combined with offline services to provide a seamless patient journey, both within the hospital walls as well as externally, and telehealth will definitely play a big part of that journey.”