telehealth appointment

What the experts say about the future of telemedicine

Just what is telemedicine today – and what will it be post-COVID? For one thing, it is hardly new. In 1906, the first remote electrocardiograph reading was conducted over a telephone line, making the practice of diagnosis and treatment at a distance well over a century old.1

It now goes by a variety of names – telemedicine, telehealth, eHealth, mHealth – and encompasses a wealth of uses and technologies. Thanks to its core nature as healthcare is delivered remotely, it has proven both a saving grace and a potentially overwhelming burden during COVID-19, as healthcare providers strive to keep up.

Explosive growth in telehealth during COVID-19

Consider the example of Maryland-based Medstar Health System, with 100 care locations.  Between March 13, 2020, when much of the U.S. began to shut down, and May 1, the system went from two telehealth visits a day to more than 4,150 daily, as reported in Health IT News.2 Or New York University Langone Health, virtual urgent care visits grew by 683% between March and April and non-urgent virtual visits jumped an extraordinary 4,345% (per research from the Journal of the American Informatics Association).3 It’s all indicative of why research firm Frost & Sullivan projects that the use of telehealth will increase sevenfold by 2025.

How will healthcare keep up with the demand for telehealth?

The obvious benefits of effective remote healthcare during a pandemic can sometimes obscure its challenges. For one, the current emphasis, in both face-to-face healthcare and telehealth, is on COVID patients. However, the inevitable side effect of that necessary emphasis is that non-urgent care is being postponed, building up what researchers at Duke University refer to as a “care debt.”

To “pay back” that debt, and meet pent-up demand for care, the researchers suggest that hospitals and health care providers need to accelerate the development and growth of their telehealth programs, to serve non-COVID patients as well as those suffering from the coronavirus.

They recommend focusing on telehealth as four “encounter” types:

  1. E-consult, in which providers communicate with other providers and resources
  2. Remote patient monitoring via connected devices, or self-reporting by patients
  3. Online chats, with live and artificial intelligence agents
  4. Patient-provider one-to-one communication via video or telephone 4

Fortunately, a multitude of technology providers are available to help plan and provide resources, and some $200 million in Federal funds were allotted in the CARES Act for COVID-19 relief to help facilities expand and improve their telehealth offerings.3

The future of telehealth is not hands-free – it still requires hand hygiene

Even with all this expansion and investment, one persistent misconception must be dispelled – that telemedicine is touchless, hands-free and does away with the usual healthcare considerations for hygiene.

The simple fact that so much of telehealth involves handheld devices dictates that providers still be vigilant on their end about hand hygiene, out of concern for staff and on-site patients even while treating others safely at a distance.

telehealth iPad hand hygiene

The Joint Commission and other governing organizations have established standards for sterilizing devices in healthcare settings – but smartphones and tablets, the relative “newcomers” to the mix, may get overlooked. A study by the Laboratory of Infectious Agents and Hygiene showed that 64% of healthcare workers use their mobile phones at work, but 20% never follow any hand hygiene procedures after using the devices – even though they are aware of the preponderance of pathogens that can remain on a phone or tablet.

This makes it wise for each individual organization to publish their own standards. Alberta Health Services, for instance, has established guidelines for Cleaning and Disinfection of Telehealth Equipment which include:

  • Performing hand hygiene before and after device use (either via an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or handwashing with soap and water)
  • Cleaning devices with disinfectant wipes

Prepare for the future of telehealth with expert help

As the Duke University researchers recommend, the time to start preparing for exploding demand in telehealth post-COVID is now – so turn to the experts. Many complimentary resources exist to help you formulate your own guidelines for telehealth hygiene, within the context of your overall hygiene program. Start by reading “Secure the new healthcare standard,” from the global hand hygiene experts at Tork and then take a step into the Virtual Reality Clean Hands Training and Education game specifically designed to improve hand hygiene.

1 National Institute of Health: One hundred years of telemedicine
2 Health IT News: Telecare set for a “tsunami of growth”
3 Healthcare News: Telehealth has staying power
4 Healthcare News: Hospitals should prepare now for future telehealth demands 
5 mHealth Intelligence: Are providers paying attention to mHealth Hygiene?