By Chelsey Keith P. Ignacio, Special Features and Content Senior Writer

The recent global health crisis has exposed vulnerabilities in the healthcare system. But, at the same time, it urged for innovations at the frontline.

Technologies have advanced in terms of development and adoption across various sectors, including healthcare. This is clear with the rapid rise of telehealth, which the World Health Organization recognizes as the utilization of information and communication technology to deliver healthcare services, even as providers and patients are separated by distance.

In 2020, when the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic incited safety concerns and lockdown restrictions, telehealth’s relevance accelerated among healthcare providers and patients.

“Telehealth is no longer simply a buzzword. Prior to the pandemic, telehealth adoption was relatively slow, with many healthcare institutions hesitating to utilize the technology primarily to cost, reimbursement, regulatory compliance, and patient privacy concerns,” Alvin Molina, head of solutions management at The Medical City (TMC), told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has quickly become a viable treatment option and, in some circumstances, a lifesaver for the patient population it serves. Many healthcare facilities, including TMC, had already planned and included a telehealth platform in their digital transformation road map, but the pandemic accelerated the timeline for TMC Online implementation, and it has emerged as one of the first hospitals to implement such services,” he added.

Bain & Company likewise observed how telehealth adoption among consumers soared in the Asia-Pacific, with usage having doubled in countries including China, India, Indonesia, and Singapore while rising ninefold in Australia from 2019 to 2021. Adoption also almost doubled among physicians. Consumers in these countries, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia, expected continued growth of telehealth utilization through 2024.

“Telehealth services accelerated mainly through four ways: rapid adoption of the service due to social distancing; expanded coverage and reimbursement of health insurance companies; increased patient satisfaction due to the convenience of the service; and technological advancement due to the development of remote monitoring devices,” Aventus Medical Care, Inc. Vice-President and Medical Director Dr. Sally L. Gaspar and TelAventusMD Associate Director Dr. Donabel Pineda shared.

Telehealth then continued to develop since its relevance rose. And even when the lockdown restrictions have eased, telehealth remained to be perceived as a part of delivering care.

“The healthcare industry started offering new technological platforms and online tools through videoconferencing and software applications with e-consultation options. Healthcare insurance companies have also started offering packages with teleconsultation service inclusions, and of course, the participation of the government helped improve telehealth services by establishing [a Technical Working Group] to promote the use of telemedicine,” Drs. Gaspar and Pineda said.

“Healthcare providers have continued to innovate in order to make telehealth services more accessible and convenient for patients,” added TMC’s Mr. Molina. “New business models and services were enabled, two of which are TMC’s drive-thru services and Remote Care, both of which are part of the TMC Online services.”

But with further support through investment and regulation, it is seen that telehealth could expand its reach.

Expanding accessibility

Since it enables care to be delivered remotely, telehealth is seen to have the capacity to better access to healthcare and reach patients without constraints in terms of distance.

“Telehealth may be viewed as a service provided only to those with the means and access to it, yet it has the potential to significantly improve access to healthcare services for Filipinos, particularly those in low-income and rural regions,” Mr. Molina said.

He pointed out that such services could benefit those residing in rural areas, where access to healthcare might be limited or traveling long distances might be challenging.

Aventus’ Dr. Gaspar shared that there are now mobile clinics equipped with telehealth technology, which make platforms available and enable patients in remote areas access to healthcare services, though also acknowledging that this measure could not solve problems entirely.

Meanwhile, low-income Filipinos who might lack access to stable connectivity and computers could benefit from mobile health services, said TMC’s Mr. Molina, as these services could be offered remotely via text messaging and smartphone applications.

Still, these benefits of telehealth could be realized with further backing from healthcare providers and the government.

“Telehealth services, with continuous investment and support from healthcare providers and, notably, the government, can greatly help to overcome the inequities in healthcare access that exist in the Philippines,” Mr. Molina said.

“With the government’s backing, this will all go forward and make telehealth more accessible and equitable for all Filipinos by supporting telehealth programs, promoting telehealth services through public awareness campaigns, and giving regulatory support,” he added.

Further developments

To enhance the accessibility of healthcare to Filipinos, healthcare providers are starting to delve into new ways of utilizing telehealth, according to Mr. Molina.

For TMC’s part, he shared that the health institution is looking into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which could be harnessed for analyzing patient data and providing personalized treatment plans.

Also among TMC’s new telehealth initiatives being pursued involve wearable technology and remote patient monitoring, which enable patients’ health conditions to be monitored remotely.

Dr. Gaspar of Aventus, who also recognized the help of AI and wearable technology in healthcare, added that data analytics have been useful to identify healthcare trends and project outcomes, which could also help customize care to fit patients’ distinctive healthcare needs.

Mr. Molina also shared that TMC is pursuing telemedicine integration with electronic medical record that would enable healthcare providers to streamline the patient visit process and deliver more comprehensive care, which then could enhance the overall patient experience.

Remaining barriers

But while beneficial to enhance healthcare accessibility, telehealth still has concerns to confront to further its advancement.

Executives from both TMC and Aventus observed challenges concerning connectivity in remote and rural areas, digital literacy, data privacy, and regulatory support.

“This can be addressed by the government by establishing a strong telco service, government working with healthcare stakeholders to make a consistent regulatory framework on telemedicine, and promoting data literacy, especially to those with limited digital access,” Drs. Gaspar and Pineda said.

The doctors added that telemedicine providers must develop encryption and other measures to secure patient data. Meanwhile, Mr. Molina said that patients should be informed about the risks and how to protect their privacy.

Mr. Molina also noted the challenge with the digital divide in the country, as many Filipinos do not have devices to access telehealth.

Additionally, he considered that payment and reimbursement for telehealth services could be a challenge. Seeing that the country does not yet have a specific policy or regulation governing this, he said that the government could help by giving regulatory support while working together with healthcare providers to create a clear payment and reimbursement structure for telehealth.

Another challenge is incorporating telehealth services with traditional healthcare, said Mr. Molina. This would stipulate for coordination and collaboration among healthcare providers, and the government could again help facilitate by providing policy and regulatory support.

But despite these remaining challenges to its advancement, all of them believed that telehealth would be a critical part of healthcare beyond the pandemic.

Dr. Gaspar and Dr. Pineda expected telehealth to be working coordinately with hospitals and clinics to deliver continuous care. They also saw a hybrid setup of care become a norm.

Mr. Molina, meanwhile, envisioned “hospitals like TMC, which is at the forefront of telehealth services, to continue to hold its commitment to innovation and excellence as we navigate the post-pandemic world and collaborate with the government and other stakeholders in the near future to establish clear policies and guidelines for the use of telehealth services, to ensure that they meet the same quality and safety standards as traditional healthcare services.”

“This will help to increase the public’s trust and confidence in telehealth services and encourage more patients to utilize them,” he added.