Will telehealth stick around after COVID-19?

Whether telehealth will continue to be used by doctors following the COVID-19 pandemic will depend heavily on resourcing and policy, a Flinders University-led review has found.

In Australia, telehealth services – where doctors and clinicians speak to patients via the phone or over the internet – were encouraged during the early stages of the pandemic to minimise the risk of community transmission of the virus.

The service is also highly beneficial for people in rural and regional areas where physical medical services may be harder to access.

A team of researchers, including Dr Alan Taylor, Dr Hailay Abrha Gesesew and Professor Paul Ward from the College of Medicine and Public Health and Professor Anthony Maeder from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, surveyed 91 health professionals to understand their uptake and experience of telehealth services during the pandemic.

The clinicians reported that positives included the legitimisation of telehealth as a mode of service, increased confidence in providing the service and the increased availability of human and financial resources.

Dr Alan Taylor
Dr Alan Taylor

“While clinicians felt the change to telehealth was essentially ‘forced’ by the pandemic, we found the uptake of telehealth was dependent on mechanisms that would allow for the above-mentioned benefits, while at the same time having the available technology,” said lead author Dr Alan Taylor, who is a Member of the Australian Telehealth Society Committee.

Whether telehealth will continue following the pandemic is a complex mix of clinical practices and policies, including whether government funding for telehealth services will continue post the pandemic, added Dr Taylor.

“Due to the pandemic, the adoption of telehealth to enable physically separated care may mark a ‘new normal’ or it could be that once the pandemic passes, previous policies and practises will re-assert themselves and curb support for telehealth-enabled care.”

“How Australian Health Care Services Adapted to Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Survey of Telehealth Professionals” is published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. DOI: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.648009

Dr Alan Taylor has also led a project developing a new international standard for telehealth services.

A project within the International Standards Organisation Health Informatics Committee, the group has recently published a new ISO Standard – ISO 13131:2021 Health informatics — Telehealth services — Quality planning guidelines.

“International standards are a cornerstone for world trade in goods and services and with the vastly increased use of telehealth service, the maintenance of the quality of telehealth services is important,” said Dr Taylor.

“These guidelines will be extremely useful for healthcare organisations, including primary care providers who wish to apply risk management processes to develop quality objectives and procedures for the operations of telehealth services including.”

The standard includes:

  • management of telehealth quality processes
  • strategic and operational process management relating to regulations, knowledge management (best practice) and guidelines
  • healthcare processes relating to people such as healthcare activities, planning, and responsibilities
  • management of financial resources
  • management of information management and security
  • processes related to the planning and provision of human resources, infrastructure, facilities and technology resources
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College of Medicine and Public Health