Open Colleges recently conducted a study asking 977 Australians why they would use a “virtual hospital” service or “at home online doctor service”. A majority of respondents shared that they would never use these Telehealth services instead of visiting a medical professional in person.
What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is an umbrella term for the electronic and telecommunication-based expansion of healthcare services. It uses information and communications technologies (ICTs) to transmit health information and deliver health services over long and short distances.
Fundamentally, telehealth is about using electronic tools to provide care remotely. It’s been used the longest and most frequently in radiology. These days, thanks to technology advancements, telehealth has been utilised to help manage chronic diseases and mental health better.
However, it’s not yet an area that is accepted by many people in Australia.
What are some benefits of Telehealth?
There are a range of benefits that aim to improve the overall quality of patient treatment, while reducing the expenses associated with medical treatment. Recent studies in the US from Harvard reveal how the practice can be successfully used to treat patients with not only minor ailments, but chronic diseases. Some of the benefits of virtual treatment, include but are not limited to:
- Minimising hospital wait times for both critical and non-priority patients
- Reduced costs associated with travelling and/or staying near a hospital, particularly in metropolitan areas
- Improved access to different specialists to diagnose symptoms more efficiently
- Treatment in the comfort of your own home, as opposed to an unfamiliar clinical environment .
For example, consider a patient who lives in a regional area where there are no specialists at their local public or private hospital, which may still be a long distance from their home. Aside from the discomfort experienced, there are travel expenses associated with fuel, parking and hotel accommodation. Taking time off work also adds to the financial burden, particularly for low-income earners who are already struggling to make ends meet.
49% of Australians won’t use “virtual hospitals”
So why is there so much resistance towards Telehealth?
One factor could be that unlike other countries in the world, Australia has a nationalised healthcare service Medicare, where we’re used to receiving healthcare for free, so visiting a doctor’s office is the norm.
Specialist video consultations under Medicare are currently available for residents who are:
- Located outside major capital cities
- Access care from an eligible Aboriginal medical or health service
- Live in an eligible residential aged care facility
- Live in an area more than 15km from a specialist that could treat them
Another main factor could also be the lack of knowledge on the topic and the fear that you won’t get the same quality of care as an in-office visit. When people hear virtual, they may instantly think “artificial intelligence” and that their needs will be attended to by a “robot doctor”, but that isn’t the case at all. With telehealth, you still get that human interaction just that the healthcare provider isn’t in the same room physically.
“It is used mostly in areas such as consulting clients who are going through radiation or chemotherapy, those living in rural communities in need of medical support, and of course the large range of mental telehealth facilities we provide in Australia,” shares psychotherapist, Dr Karen Phillip.
“Digital technology currently used include phone, Skype, and email. These modes are becoming more commonly used, especially by rural community members. While personal consultation is more advantageous due to being able to see body language and facial cues, we can also learn a lot through vocal tone, speed of voice, and choice of words.“
From a Telehealth expert’s perspective, where does the apprehension lie?
“The problem with telehealth (in Australia) is that it is still in its infancy stage. People typically want to see a practitioner face-to-face. Where that is not practical, or even possible for some people, this is where telehealth has a role to play,” adds Wayne Ormond, CEO, Phone Call Doctor.
“We understand that for most people having a regular GP is, of course, paramount to the patient’s continuity of care. However, we anticipate that over the next decade, we’ll see a much larger uptake because of both lifestyle factors and the improvement of technology of these types of services.”
Every great change in history has taken time
“Despite the vast lack of specialist care in rural and remote areas in Australia and the associated inequitable access to care, amongst developing countries, Australia is one of the last to embrace telehealth. This is because our network quality has taken a long time to catch up, and people haven’t been able to get used to the capabilities of the modern internet. Slowly though we are starting to see the uptake. More than half of our population aged 65+ now have regular access to the internet,” said Dr Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO at Coviu. Coviu offers video consultation software to healthcare businesses.
“Telehealth brings access to care and convenience. The convenience factor will take a while to grab hold, but it will win out in the end. In the US for example, where telehealth has been prevalent for the last 10 years, more than 66% of the population (across all age groups) are willing to try it out. The uptake is still increasing. One day, we will all take it for granted,” concluded Dr Pfeiffer.
Is Telehealth the same as Telemedicine?
Telehealth refers to the broader scope of remote healthcare services. Telemedicine, on the other hand, is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care to a patient at a distant site. In a nutshell, Telemedicine is a subset of Telehealth.
eICU is a great example of where Telemedicine is used to provide an additional layer of service to those in critical care. State of the art technology allows intensivists (eICU caregivers) to monitor patients remotely. This helps provide better round-the-clock care as they work together with and support on-site caregivers using real-time patient data. It’s especially great for understaffed hospitals or shortage of staff willing to take on the night shift. It gives you quick and direct access to medical professionals and specialists when you need them.
Besides providing health services and care, the other sector where telehealth and digital health technology has placed a significant role in is education. As Open Colleges is a virtual education provider with no physical classrooms, we’ve created a simulated online private hospital instead as part of the Certificate III in Health Services Assistance to help students get used to working in a clinic – without leaving home!
Survey results included responses from over 977 people Australians aged 18 and over.
The facilitators of this study incentivised 2 groups of respondents to participate in this study:
- Internet users across a range of programs who are rewarded for their opinion in exchange for access to free content
- Smartphone users who opt in to participate in opinion polls in exchange for rewards determined by the research company
Internet users’ locations are determined using their IP and their demographic data is based on the target user profile of the website. Smartphone users who opt-in provide this information upon signing up to the rewards program.
The facilitators of this study ensure a balanced opinion poll by ensuring the sample of the study reflects the demographics of the target audience. For example, internet users over the age of 18. Such demographics include age, gender and geographic location. In Australia, we rely on data from Government sources such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other sources of data provided by web partners such as Google.
The facilitators of this study maintain the integrity of the research data by using the following 2 steps:
(1) Stratified sampling by filtering demographic data to align with the intended audience, and
(2) Post-stratification weighting to ensure consistency between intended and actual audience population data