How can telehealth enable patient autonomy? A snapshot view of future opportunities
Over the past two years, telehealth has seen exponential growth, accelerated by the pandemic and a need to keep people safe and healthy in their homes. Whilst the use of digital information and communication technology to access healthcare services remotely was something we were already seeing, the pandemic turned this into a necessity, not a luxury; and did so practically overnight.
Interestingly, as our societies start to open up again and despite our move into telehealth being an abrupt one, the return to in-person care has been far more gradual. As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, it is already clear that telehealth is set to stay as people seek to gain and maintain further autonomy and control over their care and wellbeing.
One of the major advantages of telehealth is the broader accessibility to services and the removal of barriers that in-person care can sometimes have. When we look at psychological care, for example, the clinical environment can be somewhat of a deterrent to those seeking treatment. Patients now have the option to receive the care they need from the comfort of their own homes, providing more options and encouraging adherence. As well as the removal of barriers, the convenient nature of this method means it is easier for patients to commit to their sessions and inevitably have better outcomes as a result.
Another benefit of telehealth is the ability to monitor patients with chronic conditions and those who have just undergone hospital procedures. The patient can be monitored remotely, in real time through a smart phone, tablet, or computer and new symptoms or changes in their condition can be reported immediately, rather than risking being overlooked at a next face-to-face check-up. This improvement in at-home care can help reduce the rate of hospital readmissions and transform patient wellbeing for the better. Alongside those advances, online healthcare has also seen an influx of new services and care concepts delivered through digital means. Such an example is ‘eye yoga’, a series of facial exercises and massage techniques aimed at reducing stress and the impact of the vast amount of time we spend on our screens. Trends such as this show the intricate ways in which the consumer is taking onus of their wellbeing and playing an interested and active role.
What we can also see is the autonomous nature of care that telehealth encourages. The relationship between doctor and patient has changed, enabling patients to take a more active role, and fostering a less passive and a more collaborative approach to care. This is a positive shift – it is proven that patients are more engaged with their treatment when it is the result of collaborative discussions rather than something that is dictated to them. We see this self-efficacy exemplified in the growth of smart watches and wearable fitness technology and in how consumers enjoy tracking their own behaviours and health every single day. We can monitor stress, sleep, heart rate, exercise and more- something that has quickly become a norm with companies constantly adding more variables for us to monitor and self-regulate. The rapid uptake of these technologies shows how popular self-monitoring has become in our society – people are continuously seeking out means of quantifying and optimising their lifestyles, including their health, and making it as easily available as possible.
An example of where we have seen one population group benefitting from telehealth for some time, is the use of remote monitoring for expecting mothers – particularly those at risk of any complications. Using a wireless pad and disposable electrode patches, the healthcare professional can monitor the vital signs of the mother and baby remotely – reducing the need for any unnecessary face to face interactions. The patches do not need to be removed at any point, leaving little for the expectant mother to have to do. While the adoption of telehealth services during pregnancy was particularly driven by the risks associated with expectant mothers visiting a hospital during the pandemic, it is quickly becoming part of a holistic approach to pregnancy care, with enormous benefit for those with high-risk pregnancies as they can continue to be closely monitored throughout and in between face-to-face check-ups.
In the near future, as our healthcare systems embrace a hybrid model, we will see more peer-to-peer support incorporated into telehealth, and find new ways to support patients, exploring what they miss the most from frequent, face-to-face interactions.
Yet, despite its obvious strengths, telehealth is not without challenges. Only by putting people at the centre of innovation can we respond to the needs of those patients and medics who use those services or home devices – and aid the development of relevant, commercially successful solutions in an ever-changing world.
Posted by PDD
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
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