Andy Edwards, Global Head of International Health Insurance, AXA – Global Healthcare

How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the use of digital health services

PUBLISHED: 3 November 2020 | LAST UPDATED: 24 February 2021

Around the world, consumers’ use of digital health is rapidly rising, with more people expecting the convenience of accessing all kinds of services, including healthcare, on their smartphones. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic though, consumer awareness and use of telemedicine in particular has jumped. The status quo has shifted. As people have been forced to adopt social distancing measures, it’s not only become more important to have convenient access to quality medical advice, but for this primary care to be delivered remotely.

As a result, the use of telemedicine services has accelerated, becoming more widely recognised in just a short space of time as both a worthwhile complement to face-to-face services and a credible solution in its own right. Our own online doctor consultation service, Virtual Doctor from AXA, has facilitated consultations in more than 115 countries since it was first launched in 2018, covering more than 27 medical specialities and providing a doctor who can guide members through their local healthcare system in their own language. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic though, it has seen an increase of up to 240% in registered users. 

With many countries still in various states of lockdown, it seems that services such as this are becoming increasingly relevant to people’s lives.

Covid-19 

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has been the catalyst for the acceleration in the use of telemedicine. As we all take measures to minimise the spread of the virus, there will be patients seeking help for other ailments and conditions, but not wanting to visit a medical centre in person. After all, life doesn’t simply stop because we’re living in an era of lockdowns.

Telemedicine connects patients with a doctor remotely – whether online or on the phone – allowing them to share their medical concern and receive a prescription, treatment plan and if needed a specialist referral, all without the need to visit a clinic in person. This kind of flexibility will, I’m sure, continue to be hugely valuable for those of us who need medical support.

Reassurance 

Getting to grips with an unfamiliar healthcare system can be challenging at the best of times, especially so when you’re also dealing with the stress of a potential medical emergency. Throw in the prospect of a global pandemic, and the situation becomes even more daunting. However, an online doctor service can go a long way towards providing some much-needed reassurance. Being able to speak with a medical professional, who can not only advise you on how to navigate the system, but can do so in your own native language, is likely to come as a huge source of relief for many worried expats.

Convenience 

Even without the influence of Covid-19, one of the most significant benefits to using a telemedicine service is the convenience factor. Typically, telemedicine services allow members to speak – or video conference – with a GP, no matter where they are and at a time that is convenient for them. There’s no need to travel to a surgery or try to squeeze an appointment into often restrictive practice hours. Medical advice from a fully qualified professional is simply available whenever the patient needs it.

Quality 

One of the most significant barriers to patients embracing telemedicine, from our own research, is that many think it’s delivered by AI. ‘Chatbot doctors’ is a term that we come across much more often than we would like. When they experience our Virtual Doctor service from AXA though, patients are typically very impressed by the quality of the consultation, the amount of time the doctor gives them, the depth of questioning and richness of advice given. And, many compare it favourably with their face to face appointments. It’s important, as these kinds of services become more mainstream, that we raise awareness of how technology merely enables the consultation – it does not deliver it.

Variety 

While the most common use for an online doctor might be to remotely consult a GP, there is actually a wide – and growing – range of different services that can be accessed remotely. Many counsellors and even physiotherapists, for example, are now offering remote sessions. Here at AXA – Global Healthcare, we are piloting a remote mental health service and, in the UK market, specialist consultations. These kinds of services offer a wide range of different benefits, from cutting down waiting times to opening up new forms of treatment to those who might otherwise struggle to access them. Our intention at AXA – Global Healthcare is certainly that, in the near future, we will be able to roll these kinds of additional options out much more broadly.

Why not?

The increasing availability of virtual doctor services means that, in many cases, it doesn’t make sense not to use them. Our own research* has found that it’s already being offered to a great many expats, particularly as a source of support for mental health. 80% of the HR decision makers that we spoke with in April this year told us that virtual support is an essential aspect of their organisation’s mental health support package, while a further 79% went so far as to say that they believe it is actually the future of mind-health support. Telemedicine, it seems, is here to stay.

This has already been a trying time for healthcare services around the world, and there’s no doubt in my mind that, over the coming months, it will continue to be so. But this period has also been a fascinating test for online doctors. For some time now, the technology has been in place for patients to meet a wide range of their healthcare needs digitally, but necessity is only just prompting many of us to embrace it. The true test will be how many continue to use it after we have returned to ‘normal’, and the option is once again available to freely visit medical centres in person.

Depending on how warmly these services continue to be received in the current climate, we might soon find that a digital approach to healthcare does, itself, become the new “normal.”