Telehealth has already helped to transform the way healthcare services are accessed and provided. For any healthcare organisation, patient care is the priority, and telehealth has proven to be a groundbreaking way of providing fast, high-quality and convenient care services.
GPs and hospitals are beginning to realise the potential for face-to-face video communication, improving access to care and easing pressure on the healthcare system. Virtual consultation and remote diagnosis have become reality and offer incredible potential to shape the GP surgery of the future and increase access to specialist services from within the primary care system.
This technology could significantly reduce the burden on secondary healthcare provision in the UK, particularly at a time when A&E services are struggling to deliver crucial care.
Telehealth could see the complete transformation of primary care, for example, with the creation of remote diagnosis and observation rooms, allowing patients to be diagnosed via video link and subsequently seen remotely by specialists. Telehealth also has the potential to create high-definition conferencing suites by allowing groups of experts to discuss care options together, irrespective of their geographical location, leaving more time for the delivery of other vital services.
These applications of telehealth have the potential to speed up the diagnosis and prescription process, improving patient treatment and longer-term outcomes, while reducing patient discomfort and travel time.
Telehealth is continually evolving and can be adapted to many different situations. Renal care and optometry have already been identified as areas in which telehealth could be used; patients using dialysis machines can be observed remotely in their own homes, and eye examinations can be carried out via video link.
The next step for telehealth is its integration into mobile devices, enabling patients to contact their doctor using video streaming as new and emerging technology becomes more reliable and affordable. Such mobile telehealth methods would also reach thousands of nurses, support staff and GPs, widening access to convenient, timely care.
We may soon see telehealth become integrated into more specialised areas of healthcare, such as rehabilitation processes for mental health patients or prisoners. Video links can be provided, via mobile devices, to those in institutions where visitors are not permitted – consequently aiding the rehabilitation process and improving both mental and physical health.
One example of the implementation of telehealth is the Cumbria and Lancashire Telestroke Network, which is operational in eight hospital sites across the north-west. The network provides an out of hours, remote video stroke diagnosis service, allowing the correct drugs to be prescribed quickly, irrespective of the doctor’s location.
With 4,000 people across Cumbria and Lancashire becoming victims of strokes each year, this innovative technology has reduced the level of morbidity and mortality in the region, particularly in rural areas where healthcare is relatively inaccessible.
While the younger, more tech-savvy generation, may be more inclined to take advantage of telehealth and the services it offers, older generations may benefit more from alternative applications of telehealth. For example, the elderly or those prone to seizures can be provided with potentially life-saving remote sensors to wear, which will alert emergency care teams if they fall.
While telehealth has potential, personal, face-to-face contact cannot be replaced. However, telehealth is coming of age as an effective measure that can harness new, affordable technology with the potential to deliver convenient, effective care to patients willing to embrace it, and provides an alternative way for an overburdened NHS to deliver outstanding health outcomes.