The global pandemic has forced much of everyday life online. Schools, jobs and social activities are now (when possible) conducted virtually. Healthcare has undergone a similar digital transition towards remote consultations. With many companies now considering making home-working permanent even after the pandemic, should we keep seeing our doctors remotely?
For many, the pandemic has changed the way they visit their doctors. Instead of postponing non-urgent treatment, many patients are increasingly getting used to speaking to their doctors and therapists over the phone or via video calls. Virtual healthcare, or “telemedicine”, has increased by 40% in France since the pandemic started. Besides the ability to virtually visit your doctor, technology can also help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As more health data is shared, hospitals and governments across Europe are becoming more efficient in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Julia, who believes some in-person interactions just cannot be replicated online. Given how intricate an examination and health diagnosis from your doctor can be, should we make sure to get back to in-person consultations as soon as possible? Or should we continue seeing our doctors online after COVID? We asked Brieuc van Damme, Director-General of Belgium’s National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance. What would he say?
Both will probably be necessary. We’ve seen that many things can be taken care of through online sessions, but of course, not everything. It depends on how comfortable the patient is during an online conversation. Your doctor not having physical contact, or being unable to do some basic tests can be challenging. But I think both will be complimentary. We’ve learned from the crisis that more can be done online than we thought. But we also learned that online sessions would never be able to replace personal and physical contact with your General Practitioner completely.
By now, most countries have found a way to finance online consultations and make them more robust from a technological point of view. But I never believe that online consultations will take over completely or will be the gold standard, once this crisis will be over with. If anything, the crisis will have given the necessary boost to increase technological confidence, both by the healthcare professionals’ and patients’ sides. We were obliged to find very flexible ways to finance such consultations and put in place the right infrastructure, which was definitely a good thing. We also realised that the value added of having a personal and physical contact with your doctor will be key in the future as well. It has created the necessary legal, financial and technological acceleration. But I don’t think the effects will be able to completely replace good old physical contact.
The pandemic lockdowns have moved our lives online at breakneck speeds. We had a comment from Gonçalo, who is worried people might lose trust in technological innovation if change happens too quickly. Does Brieuc van Damme believe rapid technological innovation risk alienating patients?
Yes, if it’s not done in a considered way. You need to consider that not everybody is as savvy of technology as we may think; that everybody is as capable of working with technology; or has a high degree of trust in technology. So obviously we need to take progressive steps forward. The pandemic has accelerated a couple of things that normally would have taken a long time. But we’ve never kept out of sight that this can only happen with the necessary human support. And so this is an attention point, indeed, which is applicable for future developments as well.
We are in the pilot phase of a Covid telemonitoring project at home, here in Belgium. It’s a very recent project. One of the conditions is that there’s an available staff 24/7. The idea in this pilot phase is to see to what extent we can keep people out of the hospital. We underestimate that a hospital can be a dangerous place for your quality of life and infections and other potential risks. There’s a good reason to keep people out of the hospital. Again, I think this is a two-sided story; we want not to leave people alone. Even though it may be an app, there are still people behind it that you can count on to interpret your data and to reach out if they believe, based on your parameters that something may be going on. By doing so, they’re also allowing you to stay at home and to stay out of the hospital, which has substantial benefits from a public health perspective.
Our medical history is extremely personal. For this reason, client-patient confidentiality is very important in most countries. We had a comment sent in from Rita, who is concerned about data protection and privacy as more medical services move online. Are her concerns valid?
Of course, Rita’s concerns are valid. It’s the policymakers’ responsibility to take the necessary measures to limit that risk, even if it can’t be excluded completely. I think we have to be honest about that as well. But we can limit access to the data to the people who have a therapeutic relationship with a patient, for example, and making sure the Data Protection authority has had a look at the protocols that are in place; Making sure that the contract foresees destruction of the data after a certain amount of time when that therapeutic relationship can no longer be relevant. All these measures indeed need to accompany the implementation of these technologies. And as far as Belgium is concerned, we work very closely together with the data protection authority to make sure that those risks are minimised as best as we can. There’s always a risk, which cannot be excluded, but I believe with today’s technologies, governance and systems processes, we can limit that risk to an absolute minimum.
Should we continue seeing our doctors online after COVID? Would you mind being treated by a doctor you never see in person? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts!
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