In cities, 24-hour access to services has long been the norm. Whether it’s having Chinese food delivered at 2 am or public transport that runs all night, more and more cities have earned the moniker “the city that never sleeps”.
It’s no wonder then, that telemedicine, the practice of evaluating, diagnosing and treating patients remotely using telecommunication technologies, had taken off in those areas long before COVID became part of the global language.
With patients increasingly used to access all sorts of services remotely, a boom in telemedicine was an inevitability. GP access Monday to Friday 9-5 has been looking increasingly archaic for some time now and with extended GP access, an easier way of accessing prescriptions goes hand in hand – who wants to leave their house to queue in a supermarket pharmacy when they aren’t feeling well?
Arguably, it’s in rural areas where telemedicine can make the biggest difference to patients and practitioners. Less access to public transport, greater distances between home and healthcare services, more people working fixed hours and less able to take time off to attend appointments are all reasons why accessing healthcare remotely can be life-changing. Similarly, people working and leading busy lives in urban areas and university students working away from home can enjoy the benefits.
With telemedicine, patients can see a doctor on-demand when they need to and business is booming. The global telemedicine industry is expected to be worth $80billion by 2025. In the UK alone, the industry is expected to see double digit growth each year.
The Signature Pharmacy team recognised the potential boom in the telemedicine industry long before patients did, developing an online pharmacy to partner the growing telemedicine industry. Telemedicine was a new and relatively untested idea in the UK. The Signature team had a vision to work with Telemedicine companies creating a seamless flow of being able to see a doctor virtually and exceeding consumer expectations for quick and easy home or work delivery.
Creating a medication delivery service and partnering with telemedicine providers, Signature was an early provider in the pharmacy delivery space. At the time, telemedicine companies were relatively unknown, now they are some of the largest companies in the industry.
It took a long time for telemedicine to develop from first being used through a closed-circuit television link between Nebraska Psychiatric Institute and Norfolk State Hospital for psychiatric consultations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But as technology has vastly and rapidly improved in the early 21st century, consumers have started to adapt to this new way of accessing healthcare and the industry has grown significantly.
Every mobile phone, tablet, laptop and even televisions now offer a gateway to healthcare that didn’t exist before. The spread of 4G and arrival of 5G internet make connections faster and more stable, making the online appointment ever-closer to the “real” thing. And while telemedicine was a huge growth area before COVID, the pandemic has cemented its place in the UK healthcare market.
Whereas previously, only the early adopters might have considered seeing a GP virtually as a viable alternative to a face-to-face appointment, the pandemic has forced health providers to think differently. When hospital trusts were instructed to cancel non-urgent and elective activity in March this year to make space for the anticipated first wave of COVID patients they had to ramp up virtual appointments to ensure patients could still access care.
And consumer expectations continue to drive industry growth too. Increasingly, people now expect remote or virtual consultations from their GPs and expect full access, including access to prescribed medications. After all, what’s the point in enjoying the convenience of a remote GP appointment, if the patient still has to visit the surgery to pick up their medication?
A year ago, recognising the exponential growth in the telemedicine market and the opportunities it presented to vastly improve access to healthcare, NHS England published an Implementation Toolkit for using online consultations in primary care. Just two months later, as COVID took over, the NHS published its “Clinical guide for the management of remote consultations and remote working in secondary care during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Patients are now not only more comfortable speaking to GPs over the phone and via video, but they are starting to expect it. Increasingly, virtual appointments are moving away from being the back-up option and becoming the “go-to” means of accessing primary care. More companies than ever are offering access to a virtual GP as an employee benefit through private providers.
The COVID response has led to long-term change, with telemedicine becoming a key part of many health providers’ future service development plans. Putting patients at the heart of care provision means providing care in a way that patients want, need and expect. Increasingly, that is through telemedicine.