Is Telehealth Key to Containing Coronavirus?
The World Health Organisation has declared the spread of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV/COVID-19) a global emergency, following its appearance in China late last year. As of February 12, over 45 000 cases and 1,100 deaths have been confirmed in mainland China alone, surpassing the toll from the SARS epidemic of 2002-3.
New cases are being identified each day across 25 other countries, including Australia, which currently has 15 known cases. The Australian Government has recently implemented strict travel restrictions and self-imposed quarantine for all travellers, coming from mainland China.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Coronavirus outbreak is how little is still known about the nature of the disease. It is too early to determine how deadly the virus is, how the virus actually spreads and whether an infected person is contagious before showing symptoms.
Currently, it is believed to be spread from person to person through close contact and respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
'It’s currently unclear if a person can get 2019-nCoV by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.' - CDC 2020. There is no known cure or vaccine for the illness.
Health workers continue to become infected whilst caring for sick patients. As many as 40 hospital staff were infected in a single Wuhan hospital. The governor of Hubei province has admitted medical staff in the affected district are 'overstretched and lack sufficient protective gear', meaning more infections among healthcare workers are imminent. There has also been a recent study that suggests the virus has a high rate of hospital-related transmission, meaning patients who were hospitalised previously for other reasons are also at increased risk of infection.
A hospital worker wears full protective gear to treat Coronavirus patient Source: NY Post
Given the highly transmissible nature of the virus, it is surprising the Australian government, and hospitals on a global scale, have not been utilising the one thing that can help prevent the spread of infection - modern technology.
Telehealth, or more specifically video consultations, allows for patients and healthcare providers to be connected via a video/audio link, meaning care can be offered remotely.
Telehealth has a myriad of uses in this global health emergency:
- Patients who are already in hospital can be attached to medical devices as needed, and simply see hospital staff via video consultation for checkups throughout the day. This limits physical interaction between patients and healthcare providers.
- Recent travelers to mainland China who are in a self-imposed quarantine can check in with their healthcare provider via video consultations. This reduces their need to travel to the healthcare centre and put others, or themselves at risk of contracting the disease.
- Individuals showing mild flu symptoms can check in with their healthcare provider vid video, to determine whether further action is needed.
- Geographical barriers do not exist, therefore Australian's still in mainland China or elsewhere in the world can easily contact Australian doctors for personal health advice and information.
- Using video consultation services reduces the strain on clinics, hospitals and emergency services, ensuring resources are being used efficiently.
Nowadays, telehealth is inexpensive and simple - it takes less than 5 minutes to set up a virtual clinic using our own platform Coviu. We provide a browser-based solution with secure, private video consultations and support clinical workflows. We even provide in-call clinical tools for diagnostics and treatment. All that is needed to use Coviu is a stable internet connection and a modern device equipped with a speaker, microphone and camera.
In China, telehealth is already on the rise as part of this crisis. A Chinese healthcare company has made its telemedicine services available for free to residents of Hubei, encouraging anyone with mild symptoms to consult with online doctors. As of January 26, the page had over 400,000 visitors.
In addition, One US and one Israeli hospital have been testing out the effectiveness of telehealth 'robots' in hospitals which can enter a patient's room, monitor a patient's vital signs and host the doctor on a screen to talk to the patient, thereby minimising physical contact and chance of infection.
Telehealth technology has been around for years and patients are happy to use it, particularly when a trip to the doctors could cause more harm than good.
So, why is it not being used on a broad scale in Australia?
The problem lies in slow adoption by government. In a country where 70% of healthcare is provided by public health, Medicare reimbursements are vital to uptake. Right now, reimbursements are limited to rural and remote health and even there are quite patchy and don't apply to all primary care providers. This means the majority of our population does not have access to Medicare reimbursements for telehealth.
In the situation of the coronavirus, the largest risk of infection is arguably in cities. Will we need to wait until the viral threat is paramount in Australia before we see reimbursements for telehealth for city dwellers?
To learn more about Coviu telehealth software, click here.
If you would like to be listed as an Australian healthcare provider on our patient-facing telehealth directory, please contact us.