Coronavirus and shifting attitudes to telehealth
Healthcare providers’ and patients’ level of comfort with telehealth services as a supplement to more traditional forms of healthcare has been increasing gradually for several years in the UK. However, as the coronavirus crisis has developed, we have seen substantial signs that healthcare providers and Government/regulators are turning urgently to telehealth to address the specific demands of providing assessment and treatment in the current circumstances. Many within the healthcare and technology sectors are predicting that the response to the pandemic could accelerate the take-up and mainstream acceptance of telehealth services in the UK over the long term.
Telehealth supports many of the approaches being recommended to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Notably, it enables patients to connect with a medical professional remotely without having to leave their home and risk catching the virus, or infecting others. This social distancing can be vital for patients with underlying conditions, who are often frequent users of healthcare services and who need to be especially careful not to expose themselves to infection. There is also a role to play in reducing the risk to healthcare professionals and support staff on the frontline of healthcare provision, thus reducing their need to self-isolate, which in turn affects the capabilities of the healthcare workforce.
Accordingly, major changes to how healthcare is delivered in the current environment are being introduced and encouraged by providers and regulators. Last month NHS Digital advised all GP practices to change to an online, triage first approach using video or telephone rather than having face to face appointments. 1 According to NHS Digital, in 2019, less than one in 100 GP appointments were carried out via video and four out of 10 patients had no option to have an online consultation. 2 This is ascribed in large part to practices themselves not having explored or embraced the technology. 3 However, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, a variety of digital health platforms and providers have identified a surge in demand for their services, suggesting a significant change in a short space of time. Most of the demand appears to be from GP practices. However, hospital trusts looking to move outpatient appointments online and other organisations, such as hospices, are also said to be looking into telehealth options that can be integrated quickly.
The coronavirus response could also see a significant change in the types of patient who become habitual users of telehealth. Many early adopters have been relatively young patients, who are often more accustomed to accessing a broad range of services remotely and appreciate the convenience and flexibility that an online medical consultation can bring. According to Accenture’s 2019 Digital Health Consumer Survey of patients in England and Wales, 33% of those surveyed had used telemedicine services in some form, and two-thirds of respondents said they would consider doing so in the future. 4 Many patients with chronic conditions have also benefitted from telehealth solutions that allow them to build remote monitoring and consultation technologies into their care, often in collaboration and with the encouragement of their healthcare provider. However, it is among older patients, more accustomed to receiving face-to-face health services, where the most significant shift is likely to occur.
At a time when the healthcare sector generally is concerned about its ability to provide essential services, and high numbers of staff are at risk of becoming sick or having to self-isolate, telehealth services could also be confronted with stretched resources during a period of unprecedented demand. The crisis is also creating huge levels of demand upon the technologies themselves and their robustness will be tested. Providers must be vigilant that standards of care are maintained as additional patients are taken on.
The coronavirus pandemic has also led to warnings of a heightened cybersecurity threat as cybercriminals look to exploit the situation. The healthcare sector has reportedly seen an increase in cyberattacks 5 and telehealth providers are likely targets, given the amount of personal and sensitive data exchanged and stored to enable the running of services. It is key that cyber security measures and employee awareness training are maintained and updated in response to the risks, to try to reduce exposure to a ransomware attack, or the substantial loss or compromise of data.
The insurance response has been developing in recent years to support a wide range of health and tech providers operating in the telehealth space. In a complex risk environment, firms need to ensure their coverage bridges the range of risks, including medical, technology and cyber liabilities.
1NHS Digital “Moving To A Triage First Model”, March 2020
2Article in The Guardian, March 2020
3Article on Sifted website, March 2020
4Accenture 2019 Digital Health Consumer Survey
5Article on the Medical Device Network website, March 2020
Beazley Virtual Care is a customised insurance solution for risks associated with operating in the telehealth market. Find out more.
About the author:
Andrew underwrites on the International Healthcare team within Specialty Lines. He previously underwrote Terrorism and Political Violence within the Political Contingency Group. A graduate in Biology from Oxford Brookes University, Andrew joined Beazley in June 2011 having started his Lloyd's career in 2006. Andrew writes business on a worldwide basis within the field of Miscellaneous Medical, Life Sciences, and the newly launched Virtual Care product.
About the author:
Nick Pearce is a healthcare liability underwriter at Beazley writing medical malpractice and associated liability risks on a worldwide basis as well as the recently launched UK Virtual Care product. He joined Beazley in March 2016 and has almost more than 20 years of experience in insurance including over a decade focused on healthcare liability risks.