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TELEHEALTH - WHY COVID HAS CHANGED HEALTHCARE FOREVER.

Telemedicine is a part of the healthcare sector that has some pretty staggering numbers attached to it - $ 250 billion is one estimate. But Telehealth didn’t arrive out of the blue, telephone consultations have been in use for over a century and video calls were first trialled by doctors in Nebraska in 1964 (using television signals instead of the internet).

The internet made video calling a relatively straightforward proposition but the take-up had been slow - until Covid. The reluctance of GPs to have patients at their surgeries, along with a similar reluctance on the part of patients visiting those surgeries made Telehealth an obvious answer.

Ten years of change happened in one week of lockdown Covid provided a tipping point. Across the US alone, nearly half of healthcare consumers are now using telehealth, according to consultancy firm McKinsey—up from one in 10 last year. In Europe, virtual medicine has been held back by strict privacy regulations and patients reluctant to give up in-person doctor’s visits. British primary care doctors, too, have been barraged by growing workloads of late, with patients living longer and more problems being rerouted from hospitals, leaving them little time to train on virtual tools.

Technology companies are racing to capitalise on a regulatory pullback by governments as they battle the virus. Local GPs, many of them once skeptics, are rushing into the new age, too, singing the praises of virtual visits that they say save them time and offer a useful complement to physical exams. Before the virus, video appointments made up only 1 percent of the 340 million or so annual visits to primary care doctors and nurses in Britain’s National Health Service.

The NHS told thousands of clinics across the country to start switching to remote consultations lin April and said it had fast-tracked approval of digital providers to ramp up their offerings. Push Doctor, a telemedicine company, said its weekly orders had grown 70 percent since the outbreak. Docly, another company, said demand had increased by 100 percent from one week to the next as the virus spread. The shift is striking in Britain, where regulatory hurdles and a cluttered bureaucracy have left telemedicine companies complaining for years about access.

Many doctors attributed the mass adoption of remote appointments to a company called accuRx. Already a trusted tool for doctors who wanted to send text messages to patients, accuRx built a video-calling system over a weekend after the virus hit Britain. It quickly became the go-to provider for online appointments, offering a stripped-down interface and the comfort of having long been in primary care clinics. More than 90 percent of primary care clinics in England are now using it. Doctors said patients had seemed to adapt quickly, with the help of occasional coaching in how to open text messages and video links. What is clear however is that there is no going back - telehealth is here to stay and not just in primary care.

Here at Medmin - many of our surgeons have been undertaking initial consultations with patients over telephone or video call while covid has been rife. For some patients, particularly with conditions that they find embarrassing or difficult to discuss, there have been clear benefits, for others there has been a lessening in anxiety about visiting a consulting room in a hospital. For doctors who have been asymptomatic but tested positive for Covid, they have been able to continue making a contribution by seeing patients while sequestered at home