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To fulfil potential, telehealth must be universally available
WITH healthcare systems around the world under increasing strain from ageing populations, rising rates of chronic diseases and widespread skills shortages, telehealth is being heralded as a silver bullet to help precious medical resources go further.
In simple terms, "telehealth" refers to the use of technology to provide certain healthcare services remotely. This can take the shape of the secure sharing of medical images and information between professionals on different sites for better collaboration and workload distribution.
For example, tele-Intensive Care Units allow senior consultants to monitor and advise colleagues on a patient's condition without having to be physically present in the same hospital, or even time zone.
It can also refer to remote patient monitoring whereby patients can receive diagnosis, treatment or condition management from the comfort of their home, without having to stay in hospital or see their doctor in person - shifting the management of certain conditions from the hospital to the home.
The potential benefits of this are numerous. From an efficiency point of view, it means that human resources - that are increasingly stretched - can be more smartly deployed to where they will make the biggest difference. In practical terms, cutting down the need for consultants to travel between hospitals, or even around hospitals, also saves valuable time that can be reallocated to patient care.
According to a five-year study in the United States that investigated the impact of deploying telehealth technologies across 56 intensive care units in 32 hospitals, length of patient stay and mortality were both reduced - showing an improvement in quality of care, as well as a positive impact on resources.
Shifting some aspects of diagnosis and care delivery from hospitals to homes also frees up in-demand hospital beds for higher-priority patients.
In addition, the possibility for elderly and less mobile patients to stay in their homes for longer, while still receiving the same standard of care that they would have previously received in hospital, not only prolongs their independence and quality of life, but also reduces their burden on limited hospital resources - an essential solution to safeguard the quality of care as Singapore's life expectancy increases.
THE LOCAL PICTURE
The good news for Singaporeans is that the latest data from the Philips Future Health Index (FHI) shows that adoption rates for telehealth technology in Singapore are higher than most other developed nations that the report studied, with two-thirds (64 per cent) of healthcare professionals here currently using some form of connected care technology for diagnosis, treatment or management of their patients' conditions.
Compared to other developed nations like the US (46 per cent), Germany (45 per cent) and France (40 per cent), Singapore is storming ahead.
However, as is often the case with "new" technologies that take off quickly, the FHI report also finds that local legislation and payment models around how telehealth is used have yet to catch up with Singapore's impressive early adoption rates.
For telehealth to truly make a difference in improving the quality of care and safeguarding the long-term sustainability of Singapore's healthcare system, it needs to be universally available. This calls for certain standards to be set around how it is deployed, and funded, in order to ensure a baseline of quality across public and private practice, and also between one healthcare practitioner and the next.
By the same token, standardisation will also be essential for training and education purposes, so that all healthcare professionals who are educated or who practise in Singapore adhere to the same core approaches when it comes to the use of telehealth.
Finally, and equally important, a standardised approach will be essential to educating the general public too, about how telehealth can benefit them and how to use it.
Undoubtedly, the benefits of telehealth are significant, and Singapore's early adoption of the technology is impressive, particularly compared to many other developed nations, but this technology will only fulfil its full potential if Singapore's government and healthcare sector work together to agree on a common language and framework for what comes next.
- The writer is CEO of Philips ASEAN Pacific