Over the past few months, every single dimension of our lives as human beings has come to a standstill. We have been forced to surrender our normal livelihoods and look after something special, our health. Despite the recent surge in interest, healthcare is not a new topic. It has been a topic of discussion since time immemorial and as the pandemic continues to grapple the world, more and more conversations on healthcare are emerging and becoming the order of the day. For instance, the concept of telehealth and telemedicine is receiving much attention from different parties within the system. Healthcare institutions have seen a change in their modus operandi, especially during this period of uncertainties. Patient numbers have risen, health and safety regulations have been beefed up and resources have been utilized to maximum capacity. As a result, there is unprecedented strain on the entire healthcare system and an increased need to review and reconsider their business models.
Telehealth and telemedicine are often assumed to mean the same thing but they are really two sides of the same coin. Telehealth is a broad term that encompasses the application of digital information and communication channels to promote access to healthcare services whereas telemedicine is the specific use of technologies (such as video-conferencing tools) to promote service delivery between a physician in one location and a patient in another location. The premise of telehealth is mainly its ability to increase access to healthcare services for medically underserved populations, as well as potentially reduce the rising healthcare costs and improve healthcare outcomes overall. To put this into perspective, Kenya has a total 18 neurologists, with most of them in private practice and working in Nairobi. An upsurge in the prevalence rates of neurological disorders would mean more patients seeking help from these 18 neurologists, a case of low supply and high demand. As such, the scope of telehealth would imply more reach to patients and even ensure that those who really don’t need to come to hospital are attended to, giving room and priority to those in dire need of physical access to these facilities.
Implementing and executing such interventions would go a long way in saving the healthcare system. With an internet penetration rate of over 83% and a mobile subscription penetration rate which surpassed 100% in 2018 (Communications Authority of Kenya, 2018), it is safe to say that Kenya is no stranger to technological leapfrogging. Kenya is also recognized as a world leader in mobile payments with its innovation in mobile money transfer service, “M-pesa”. This would make it an ideal destination for implementing telehealth services. The “Iron Triangle” in healthcare points out that the three key attributes in healthcare – access, cost and quality cannot all be simultaneously improved. An improvement in one area results in a decline in at least one of the others. While this is typically true, there is a role that disruptive tech can play in achieving a multi-faceted outcome. However, as good as the outcome may seem, telehealth may not be the silver bullet for the healthcare system. There are various barriers hindering the widespread adoption of telehealth services by healthcare institutions.
The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) identifies barriers such as information security concerns, patient privacy, licensing, insurance reimbursement and regulations among other issues. Furthermore, the general lack of provision of telehealth infrastructure frameworks by healthcare service providers has led to challenges in adopting telehealth. Providers need to think about the customer journey too. Customers want to be able to access medical interactions more easily and more flexibly; anything that makes getting access to services or information easier or simpler is very attractive to today’s customers, so it should be considered a key part of any health provider’s strategy.
For telehealth to become our new normal a number of forces need to work together – technological readiness, a healthcare infrastructure ready to accept and endorse these advancements, customer readiness to embrace a new kind of healthcare and last but not least – propositions that have the customer experience at heart. It is the agile and forward-thinking healthcare companies that have the opportunity to revolutionize the way healthcare is delivered and consumed.