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Is telehealth here to stay?

PUBLISHED: 1 March 2022 | LAST UPDATED: 19 October 2023

In the early stages of the pandemic, when lockdown meant that many patients were wary of visiting doctor’s surgeries in person, the use of digital healthcare services rocketed.

The curious thing, though, is that this technology wasn’t new. It was entirely possible, pre-COVID, to organise a teleconsultation, but at AXA we found* that, of those who registered for the Virtual Doctor service, 26% went on to use it. After the pandemic hit, that figure leapt to 64%, as the service was used in 65 more countries, totalling 141 by December 2021.

Initially, during the first few months of the pandemic, the use of telehealth grew by a faster rate than it has done in recent months. Now, it sits at around 2-3 times the previous levels, and if we want to maintain these levels and the benefits offered by telehealth, we need to take action. As terrible as the pandemic has been, it posed an opportunity that comes once in a century to make fundamental changes to the way we do things. So, the question now is: what does the future of telehealth look like and how will customers choose between virtual and face-to-face care?  

Why wasn’t it used initially? 

Historically, what we’ve seen is that patients would typically turn to telehealth as a plan-B. For instance, when they had a problem but couldn’t get in to see their doctor. But if they found that the problem couldn’t be solved via teleconsultation, or if the advice was ultimately to visit their doctor for an in-person inspection, they were unlikely to use the service again.

In order to get the most value out of telehealth, providers and insurers need to understand – and demonstrate – that it’s a means to an end, as opposed to an end in its own right. The problem we’ve traditionally had is that many patients seem not to accept a teleconsultation as a step in a wider process, despite the fact that after their consultation, around 55% of users are in a position where they can administer self-care from home. Changing this mindset, and raising awareness of the true value of telehealth, will be an important step in maintaining its popularity. 

A phygital approach is required

For telehealth to be successful in the long term, a ‘phygital’ approach – a mixture of physical and digital – is required. Consider cancer detection. We know that skin cancer can be detected very well digitally, but you can’t receive all of the required treatment digitally. So, a seamless flow between the physical and digital worlds is the key to making telehealth successful. We need to do whatever’s needed, delivering the right care at the right time, without getting hung up on whether it’s physical or digital. 

Digital health, supported by telehealth, needs to become less fragmented 

Imagine a patient who has recently had surgery for a knee injury. Their insurer has paid their claim, but when the patient calls for a follow-up tele-consultation, the doctor they speak with doesn’t know in advance that they’ve had surgery. Meanwhile, their wellbeing app still tells them to walk 10,000 steps per day.

So far, digital health has operated in a silo. Right now, this fragmentation is being managed by the consumers themselves; they are the ones dealing with the complexity. But a digital native is used to advanced levels of personalisation. When they need to make a seemingly everyday transaction, such as buying groceries or calling a taxi, the outlets they’ve used before will often remember who they are what they’ve ordered previously. So, when they come to healthcare, it’s off-putting to find that a provider they’ve been with 10 years doesn’t know half as much about them. 

This is why there has been a lack of trust in telehealth – it looks to the customer as though their provider doesn’t even know them. So, providers need to offer a more connected experience.

The industry understands the potential of telehealth – and that potential is huge. There’s a lot of good work being done in silo, but for patients to accept digital as a viable way to take care of their health, we need those different parts to come together, and form a single, flowing user journey. From the smartwatch on their wrist and the wellbeing app on their phone, to the video consultation they’ll have with their doctor and the appointment they’ll ultimately attend with a specialist – if we can find ways of making this a seamless and personalised journey, that the patients themselves aren’t required to manage, we’ll be on our way to making a success of telehealth.

We have all the parts. We know what needs to be done, and we have a unique opportunity, as we come out of the pandemic, to bring all of those moving parts together. The question now is will we? 

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.