How are telehealth and telemedicine services helping to tackle COVID-19?

How are telehealth and telemedicine services helping to tackle COVID-19?

People around the world are feeling the effects and drastic changes caused by the novel coronavirus. The medical industry and its dedicated workers are arguably taking the brunt of the damage and chaos brought on by COVID-19, with many national health systems under significant strain and pressure.

This sudden, yet ever-evolving crisis has forced the medical industry to rely on digital communication and services during this unprecedented time to lessen the toll on hospitals and medical professionals. Telehealth, also known as e-health and m-health (mobile health), has long been used. Still, the benefits and functionality of telehealth services via texting and online communication are now being celebrated and appreciated more than ever.

The increased demand for telehealth services and SMS telemedicine notifications has meant the Australian Government has expanded its Medicare-subsidised telehealth services. By dedicating $669 million, the Australian Government aims to provide greater access and availability for all Australians.

In a joint statement, Principle Medical Advisor Professor Mike Kidd AM and The Hon Greg Hunt MP shared how the expansion of telehealth services like direct messaging will be “a key weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“This will take pressure off hospitals and emergency departments. Whole of population telehealth will allow people to access essential health services in their home and will support self-isolation and quarantine policies ... It will also help vulnerable doctors to continue to deliver services to their patients.”

So, what exactly does telehealth offer?

Secure messaging services

Telehealth services can include LiveChat, OTT messaging, AI chatbots, SMS alerts and two-way text messaging. These services provide a quick and efficient way to determine if a patient should be seen by a doctor. All communications are private and secure, especially telehealth updates through text messaging. With the option to talk to a nurse or doctor, patients can request prescription refills, review test results and schedule appointments.

Secure messaging services are also playing an important role in mental healthcare. Staying connected, especially during these prolonged periods of isolation, is extremely helpful for maintaining mental wellbeing. Organizations such as Sane and Lifeline offer free webchats and texting services—instantly connecting you to trained mental health professionals and trained crisis supporters.

Virtual appointments

Video conferencing allows doctors and nurses to see their patients and talk to them virtually face-to-face. By utilizing the question-and-answer format to provide advice for care at home, doctors prescribe medication, recommend treatment and suggest additional care and referrals where necessary. While this service is mainly used for minor illnesses, it’s also useful to prompt doctors to organize face-to-face appointments.

Remote monitoring

With permission, doctors and nurses can monitor a patient's mobile phone apps, food journal, wearable devices, and health trackers remotely. Such applications can assist by sending health updates and reminders to the patient, promoting a healthy lifestyle and reducing related risks. However, if there are significant changes tracked during remote monitoring, the devices will then send alerts to medical professionals.

Doctor-to-Doctor communication

Primary care doctors have access to communicate with specialists directly and can ask questions about a diagnosis or treatment. Adhering with confidentiality practices, doctors can share information such as exam notes, patient history, test results, X-rays or other images to examine. As appointments with specialists are notoriously difficult to book, a virtual consultation may reduce wait times and eliminate unnecessary travel.

Personal health records

An electronic collection of information about a patient's health is referred to as a Personal Health Record system (PHR). It can be accessed and managed by the patient online. In the case of an emergency, these records can quickly provide emergency staff with vital information, such as current diagnoses, medications, allergies and medical history.

What other digital platforms are providing information on COVID-19?

Along with conventional telehealth services, other digital platforms are implementing important communication during this time. Such platforms are now sending out mass notifications and important health updates to aid in the circulation of factual and helpful information.

WhatsApp

The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a Health Alert on Whatsapp, which provides 24/7 support to the public. The new feature is designed to provide swift, reliable and verified information, and responds to prompts with the most up to date information.

Starting with a simple ‘Hi’, once you have clicked the WHO Health Alert, the service offers the following information:

  • How to protect yourself from infection
  • Travel advice
  • Demystify false information and myths around COVID-19

Initially launched in English, Whatsapp has announced the service will soon be available in the remaining five United Nations languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish).

Communication systems such as WHO’s WhatsApp Health Alert are lifting some of the burdens on health professionals by providing crucial health information on the development of COVID-19.

Online tools such as this provide essential health guidelines and advice, without adding to the already overwhelmed medical facilities. And instead, offer accessible healthcare, with minimal exposure.

Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Digital technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity for vital health information to go viral … helping us save lives and protect the vulnerable.”

Coronavirus Australia App

Similarly, the Australian Government has launched the Coronavirus Australia app, which gives users access to regularly updated advice and information on the novel Coronavirus.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “[the app] will assist you to get accurate and timely information about what is being done by governments around the country to support you, as you and your family … and your community work through the difficult months ahead.”

Not only does the app provide valuable health advice to help halt the spread of COVID-19, it also includes key functions such as:

  • A snapshot of the current status within Australia
  • Checking your symptoms if you are concerned
  • Relevant contact information
  • Access to updated information from the Australian Government
  • Push notifications of urgent news and updates

Why use digital communication in a health emergency?

Amid this pandemic, it is clear how vital communication is to ensure the safety and health of the public. As the virus progresses each day, the need for instant updates provided by telemedicine notifications and other digital services will only continue to grow.

Instant messaging systems like WhatsApp and SMS provide the most efficient, mass communication in an emergency or disaster. Whether you are receiving factual, automated replies, or awaiting updates, communication in a crisis via instant messages can provide lifesaving information and advice.

As we have already discovered in the early stages of this pandemic, mass SMS alerts and telehealth notifications have played an essential role. By easing the pressure off global health systems, it is also helping to combat the devastating effects on the wider population. While we maintain physical distance from each other to help stop the spread, we have remained connected in new ways to help see us through the health crisis.