WCM-Q research examines implications of telehealth surge during pandemic
The Institute for Population Health (IPH) of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) has published a scientific review of research detailing the dramatic upswing in the use of telehealth services prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at the IPH carried out an exhaustive review and analysis of 543 articles on the subject of telehealth published in 331 scientific journals during the first peak of the pandemic (from January 1, 2020 to June 10, 2020). They found that the majority of scientific studies focused on telehealth were conducted in the United States, with the next highest number published in the United Kingdom, followed by Italy, India, Canada, Australia, France, China, Spain, and Singapore, in decreasing order.
A key finding of the review was that 7.7 percent (42/543) of the published scientific articles focused on the provision of telehealth related to COVID-19. The other 92.3 percent (501/543) of the articles reported provision of healthcare support for a wide variety of communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and stroke. The research also noted that the vast majority of studies were conducted by scientific professionals in high-income countries, raising concerns that lack of telecommunications infrastructure in lower income countries might lead to widening inequity across various population subgroups with the increasing use of telehealth.
A further observation of the WCM-Q study is that many countries relaxed previously strict laws and regulations relating to telehealth in order to allow healthcare professionals to continue to treat their patients while physical distancing protocols were in place to reduce disease transmission. This raises the concern that regulations designed to ensure accountability, ethical medical practice, and patient data privacy have been removed extremely rapidly, which could cause unexpected challenges. Furthermore, some insurance companies did not provide coverage for healthcare delivered via telehealth approaches, posing a headache for patients, administrators and healthcare professionals.
The first author of the study, Dr. Sathyanarayanan Doraiswamy, Assistant Director of the IPH, said: “Many legal and practical barriers to the delivery of telehealth were removed very quickly as governments and healthcare systems reacted to the urgent need to provide care while observing physical distancing protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This has undoubtedly saved many lives, but our review also reveals that there is an urgent need to establish a global consensus on definitions, boundaries, protocols, monitoring, evaluation, and data privacy.”
The WCM-Q study, titled Use of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Scoping Review, has been published in the prestigious Journal of Medical Internet Research. The other authors of the study are Dr. Ravinder Mamtani, Vice Dean for Student Affairs-Admissions, Population Health, and Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Sohaila Cheema, Assistant Dean for the IPH, and Dr. Amit Abraham, Instructor of Population Health Sciences/Projects Specialist.
The study also pointed to a need to update the curricula of medical schools and continuing professional development programs to ensure healthcare professionals have the skills needed to provide high-quality care via telehealth approaches.
Dr. Sohaila Cheema said: “Our research highlights that the extraordinarily rapid growth of telehealth during the pandemic presents a huge opportunity for the healthcare sector to leverage technology to both expand and enhance the delivery of care. But urgent work is needed to ensure we have the correct training and regulatory frameworks to provide telehealth in a way that protects the rights, safety and dignity of those giving and receiving care.”
Dr Cheema added: “It is also crucial that the global community takes steps to ensure that people in low- and middle-income countries are also able to reap the benefits of this new boom in telehealth.”
The study can be read in full at https://www.jmir.org/2020/12/e24087