- Telehealth has the potential to improve healthcare access and outcomes, but it faces several barriers.
- Poor digital literacy, limited access to broadband, and a lack of user-friendly hardware or software are common barriers to telehealth adoption.
- Telehealth expansion has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but sustainable long-term growth will require continued investment in infrastructure and education.
- Telehealth has the potential to transform healthcare delivery, but it requires ongoing innovation, investment, and collaboration to achieve its full potential.
Having access to healthcare is an important factor in determining healthcare outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of virtual telemedicine as a substitute for traditional in-person visits due to social restrictions. However, despite its potential to improve access to care, there are still barriers to the widespread adoption of telehealth. In this blog, we will explore some of the key barriers to telehealth and what can be done to overcome them.
1. Access to technology:
One of the primary barriers to telehealth is access to technology. While many people have smartphones or computers, not everyone has a reliable internet connection or the necessary hardware to use telehealth services effectively. Additionally, older adults and individuals with disabilities may face challenges in using technology to access healthcare services.
2. Reimbursement policies:
Reimbursement policies are another barrier to telehealth. In some cases, insurance providers may not cover telehealth services or may provide lower reimbursement rates compared to in-person visits. This can make it difficult for healthcare providers to justify the cost of implementing telehealth services.
3. Regulatory barriers:
Another barrier to telehealth is regulatory barriers. Different states and countries may have different regulations and licensing requirements for telehealth providers, which can create confusion and limit access to care. Additionally, data privacy and security regulations can be a concern when providing healthcare services remotely.
4. Communication Barriers:
The majority of telemedicine platforms lack specialized tools to facilitate healthcare communications for people who are blind, deaf, or cognitively impaired. Also, there is a lack of patient education resources for people who have literacy and language barriers. Even if the system is properly established, telemedicine providers might not be aware of and unable to address accessibility issues with their patients. Telemedicine platforms need to uphold web accessibility guidelines that cater to people with disabilities.
5. Patient preferences:
Finally, patient preferences can also be a barrier to telehealth. While some patients may prefer the convenience and flexibility of telehealth services, others may feel more comfortable with in-person visits. Additionally, some patients may have concerns about the quality of care they receive through telehealth.
6. Educational impediments
This could be due to a lack of telehealth practise training. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was not a standard element in courses. Clinicians must be educated from an early age, particularly while still in school. Early exposure to telehealth through focused training will help promote confidence and comfort in their future profession.
Due to the nature of telehealth, the client’s literacy (both traditional and digital) and education level may offer a challenge. This may entail creating telehealth programmes with simplicity and ease-of-use in mind, while keeping such restrictions in mind.
7. Technological barriers
They are typically connected to the technical prerequisites for telehealth operations. Some examples of obstacles to the introduction of telehealth include inadequate digital literacy, a scarcity of user-friendly hardware or software for telehealth, insufficient access to broadband, and limited bandwidth.
The availability and speed of broadband are soon to increase. Due to the enormously faster data transfer speeds provided by the global rollout of 5G, telehealth will be made simpler. Internet accessibility has already significantly increased during the past ten years on a global scale. Contrary to the rest of the world, developing nations still have a ways to go.
Healthcare professionals must collaborate with firms to develop telemedicine apps and software solutions that meet the demands of the target population. Good design and proper education of patients and healthcare professionals can help overcome the barrier of poor digital literacy.
For many rural healthcare providers, interoperability—which includes the interchange of electronic health information—remains a problem. A secure and efficient mechanism for providers from various systems to share information and access electronic health records may provide challenges for some rural telehealth programmes.
How to overcome telehealth barriers?
Here are some strategies to overcome these barriers:
- Lack of technology access: Some patients may not have access to the technology required for telehealth, such as a smartphone or computer. To overcome this barrier, healthcare providers can offer alternatives such as phone calls or provide loaner devices to patients.
- Privacy and security concerns: Telehealth requires the exchange of sensitive health information. To overcome this barrier, healthcare providers can ensure that they are using secure communication platforms, including encrypted video conferencing and secure messaging.
- Technological difficulties: Technical issues can disrupt telehealth visits. Healthcare providers can minimize technological barriers by offering technical support to patients and ensuring they have clear instructions on how to use the technology.
- Limited internet access: Some patients may have limited internet access, which can affect the quality of the telehealth visit. Healthcare providers can address this barrier by offering low-bandwidth alternatives, such as phone consultations.
- Patient resistance: Some patients may be resistant to using telehealth, preferring in-person visits. Healthcare providers can overcome this barrier by providing clear and concise information about the benefits of telehealth, including convenience, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to manage chronic conditions from home.
- Legal and regulatory barriers: Telehealth regulations vary by state and country. Healthcare providers can overcome this barrier by staying up to date with telehealth regulations and working with legal and regulatory experts to ensure compliance.
What measures have been taken so far to expand telehealth access?
Here are some examples
- Expanded reimbursement: Many governments and insurance companies have expanded their telehealth reimbursement policies, making it easier for healthcare providers to offer telehealth services and for patients to access them.
- Regulatory changes: Governments have made regulatory changes to enable healthcare providers to use telehealth more easily, such as loosening restrictions on the use of certain telehealth technologies and relaxing licensing requirements for healthcare professionals who provide telehealth services.
- Telehealth platforms: Technology companies have developed and expanded telehealth platforms that offer a range of services, such as virtual consultations, remote monitoring, and home health delivery.
- Funding and grants: Governments and non-profit organizations have provided funding and grants to help healthcare providers invest in telehealth infrastructure and technology.
- Public awareness campaigns: Governments and healthcare organizations have launched public awareness campaigns to promote telehealth and educate patients on how to access and use telehealth services.
- Partnerships: Healthcare providers have partnered with technology companies to expand their telehealth capabilities and reach more patients.
Federal Changes to Telehealth Policy
- Telehealth reimbursement: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded reimbursement for telehealth services during the COVID-19 public health emergency, allowing healthcare providers to bill for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits. These changes have been extended multiple times, most recently through the end of 2023.
- Telehealth coverage: The federal government has expanded telehealth coverage for Medicare beneficiaries, including coverage for virtual check-ins, e-visits, and remote patient monitoring. This has allowed more people to access telehealth services, particularly those who are vulnerable or living in rural areas.
- Telehealth waivers: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government waived several telehealth restrictions, such as the requirement for a pre-existing relationship between a patient and healthcare provider, and the geographic restrictions on where telehealth services could be provided. These changes helped to increase access to telehealth and have been extended through the end of 2023.
- Interstate licensure: The federal government has encouraged states to adopt laws and regulations that allow healthcare providers to practice across state lines, which can facilitate telehealth services and improve access to care for patients in underserved areas.
- Federal funding: FThe federal government has provided funding to support the expansion of telehealth services, such as through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included $200 million for telehealth infrastructure.
It is clear that COVID-19 is not a particularly effective equaliser. As a vulnerable group, people with disabilities have received less attention when it comes to access to healthcare throughout the pandemic. Access and communication are crucial mediators of outcomes during a medical interaction. During COVID-19, telemedicine has taken the place of in-person visits rather than supplementing them, and its use will probably continue after COVID-19 at a high level. While it has made access easier for some, there are still a number of obstacles that need to be thoroughly evaluated. In order to remove these obstacles moving forward and improve healthcare outcomes and access for people with disabilities, substantial, regulatory, long-term variations in technological, and legislative infrastructure are needed. These changes must also include individualized solutions to specific patient and health system needs.