Telehealth: What's Next For How We Access Healthcare?

Cáit Berry is a Senior Consultant at PPL. Prior to moving into consulting, Cáit worked as an Occupational Therapist in the NHS, Irish and Singaporean healthcare systems. Cáit has been working as part of the Helpforce Assist programme to support the North Central London STP in their recovery planning.

As a result of the global pandemic, the telehealth revolution we have been promised for decades has finally arrived.

The big questions now are: what does the future look like, and will it stick? This article explores what’s next for digital health in our health and care sector.

The pandemic forced changes that led to a significant increase in the use of telehealth in the NHS.

An Ipsos MORI survey revealed an 80% increase in the number of people that had used an online GP in the third week of March compared to the second week, demonstrating that the general public is willing to adopt telehealth, should it be made available.

Recent months saw a surge in not only the use of remote consultations (both online and by telephone), but also the electronic prescribing service and e-triaging. In the long term, continuing the use of these technologies could result in significant improvements to the speed at which services can see and treat patients.

While we don’t yet fully know what the “new normal” will look like, we know that to protect our healthcare system over the long-term and to continue to flatten the curve, we cannot go back to how things used to be.

This means that out of necessity many of the new digital technologies currently being employed by the NHS will become more embedded over the coming months.

Traditionally, new technologies have been slow to achieve widespread adoption within the NHS. Analysis has shown that there are several barriers to the adoption of new technologies in the NHS, including financial, cultural and organisational barriers (such as a fragmented system). This has left little room to take advantage of new innovations. Sustaining the progress to date is vital but there also needs to be room to evolve, particularly as attitudes towards telehealth have changed dramatically, presenting a new window of opportunity for the NHS.

The first step in considering the “what next” is thinking about why many have quickly adapted to using telehealth in the first place.

Online consultations have replaced visits to the GP and secondary care services for assessment, diagnosis and treatment during the crisis response. However, in the longer term, there are other reasons why telehealth services can be helpful.

For instance, telehealth can be a key enabler for the preventative model advocated in the NHS Long-Term Plan. The tasks of preventative care include regular activities, often carried out by people without their health and care professionals. In this context, mobile health applications offer opportunities to support preventative care and can be used to address common health issues such as smoking cessation and improving healthy eating habits. Additionally, online peer-support networks offer resources, advice and are a further example of a digital approach to prevention. Therefore, to sustain the telehealth revolution, rooting it in the broader prevention agenda is essential.

The successful continuation of telehealth services will be reliant not only on bedrocks such as core, basic infrastructure, but also on achieving equal access for the whole population.

Many marginalised groups may face challenges accessing telehealth. Providers and policymakers must carefully consider how the telehealth policies and routines they implement might have potentially negative implications for equal access. The decisions made during this pandemic will have long-lasting impacts. We must all work together to ensure everyone is brought on the journey.

The future of telehealth will see more hands-on patient use of technology to maintain good health. This will come in the form of wider usage of mobile health applications and engagement with peer-support networks. Sustaining and developing telehealth is dependent on all of us, as providers and service users of health and care.

As providers, it will be essential to continue to collaborate and share data to better understand health outcomes, access and patient experience using telehealth platforms.

It is also essential that clinicians are aware of these technologies as part of their treatment plans and the benefits they can provide. As service users, we need to actively engage in the design of telehealth services to ensure the same level of quality as the “traditional” model is being provided.

Building trust in a new form of healthcare delivery does not happen overnight, it will take time and significant effort.

It is essential for all service users to be fully involved in the process, given options to engage and opportunities to feedback.