Telehealth Advancing, but Obstacles Remain

November 26, 2015

Telehealth has great potential to improve access to healthcare, but the promise of the technology depends on a number of factors, such as modernization of policy frameworks and communications infrastructures.

Telehealth technologies are advancing quickly but their ability to improve access to healthcare depends on a many factors, including infrastructure, skills, regulation, and culture, according to a new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The report, “Enabling Telehealth: Lessons for the Gulf,” was sponsored by Phillips, and examined telehealth in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

The report applies principles applicable to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a region that has undertaken healthcare reforms to address a rise in chronic diseases. It outlines 3 factors shaping telehealth access: government readiness, communications infrastructure, and skills.

The report notes that much of the promise of telehealth is predicated on its access benefits: the improved access of the patient to medical expertise regardless of location, and improved access of health providers to their patients for diagnosis, consultation, and monitoring. But it cautions that access to telehealth depends not only on telehealth technology, but also on modernization of policy frameworks, communications infrastructures such as broadband and mobile network coverage, and improvement of the skill sets of both clinicians and patients.

The report found that although telehealth can enable providers to work with patients anywhere, they often need multiple licenses to work in different states or countries. It recommends that where governance standards converge, regulatory bodies could trust more in the licensing decisions of neighboring authorities, creating portable licenses that allow patient-provider communications across borders. Governments also need to clarify reimbursement policies and decide how telehealth should fit into existing insurance schemes, the report states.

Organizational unity is another important access issue. “One-off” telehealth solutions will not ensure new technologies are embedded in broader organizational structure, EIU found.

Finally, the study found that the digital divide persists even in developed economies because of unequal network coverage and user skills, especially in rural regions and among vulnerable populations such as disabled and elderly people. Without improved communications infrastructure and training for these groups, new technologies may mirror existing health access inequities.

“Governments and providers must also note cultural nuances that ay influence data sharing,” the report recommends. For example, for personal or religious reasons, some patients may not wish to share digital body imagery over the Internet.

“Telehealth technologies are advancing quickly, but the tools themselves are only part of the story,” Adam Green, editor of the EIU report, said in a statement. “A wider range of factors will shape access to telehealth, such as regulatory harmonization, communications infrastructures, skills, and social sensitivities.”