Update: Our report on telemedicine in Europe and interviews with telemedicine startup entrepreneurs are available here.
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, patients and doctors suddenly found themselves facing a new reality. Healthcare systems and clinicians were overwhelmed and visiting health facilities involved an increased risk of virus transmission. In many countries, physical consultations and examinations were no longer possible in most but critical cases. As a result, telemedicine has become the new norm, and in many cases the only way to consult with a health professional.
Telemedicine solutions – the remote delivery of health care services using ICT – have existed long before the pandemic. However, it has been struggling to become an integral part of health care services. Some countries were better prepared than others. For example, in Sweden and France, public reimbursements for teleconsultations were already at par with physical visits. In Austria, on the other hand, teleconsultations had been largely limited due to a lack of legal certainty. Many countries have hastily introduced temporary rules for teleconsultations during the pandemic. The question remains whether momentum created by COVID-19 will contribute to introducing permanent and consistent frameworks that will enable and support the adoption of telemedicine on a wide scale across Europe.
Aside from reimbursements and legal frameworks, there are other elements that are important in enabling the adoption and accessibility of telemedicine solutions. Supporting health care providers and clinicians in the adoption of digital solutions, enabling services such as ePrescriptions and eRefferals, establishing common standards for secure storage and exchange of health records and patient data are some of the important tasks.
We talked to 8 telemedicine startups’ entrepreneurs and representatives to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the telemedicine sector, what challenges they face and what policymakers can do to reduce barriers and increase accessibility to telemedicine.
Our full case-study report and interviews will be published in a few weeks. In the build-up, we are sharing the highlights from our interview with Dr Elias Dagher, the founder of French telemedicine startup Consulib.
“Until 2020, the video consultation sector was very little known by patients and doctors. Only a few practitioners were using it on a daily basis”, said the founder of Consulib. During the COVID-19 crisis, the telemedicine sector experienced a major shift in France. In the last week of April, the number of teleconsultations reached 1 million, in comparison to just 60 thousand in the entire previous year.
In the face of the pandemic, Consulib has made its platform completely free for doctors. The results were immediate: the number of daily teleconsultations on the startup’s platform multiplied by 100.
According to Dr Dagher, government regulation and policy play a major role in enhancing and maintaining the growth of telemedicine. The founder’s recommendations for governments and policy makers consist of supporting the three pillars of telemedicine: patients, doctors and startups.
- Teleconsultations should be reimbursed on the same conditions as physical consultations. Reimbursement procedures should be simplified and avoid unnecessary limitations.
- Institutions should inform people about teleconsultations and encourage its use through the official channels.
- The use of online medical files and digitalised patient data should be encouraged and reimbursed. Every patient needs to have a secure and accessible online medical file.
- There should be incentives for doctors to digitise their practice. For example, in France, public health insurance already provides financial support to doctors who subscribe to teleconsultation platforms to help cover related costs and encourage the use of telemedicine.
- Tele-expertise should be also encouraged and reimbursed. Tele-expertise allows the general practitioner to collect information from his patient and then request the expertise of a specialised doctor online when appropriate. This reduces health costs and increases productivity as the patient doesn’t have to visit the second doctor.
- Startups are doing their best to develop innovative digital health solutions for public good, often operating on a limited budget and competing with large companies. It can be difficult for them to be visible. Governments could level the playing field by creating an official list or a website to present all available telemedicine solutions in one place, impartially, and disseminate this information amongst doctors and patients.
If you’re interested to hear more about the challenges and opportunities facing telemedicine startups in Europe, make sure to check out our upcoming case-study report and interviews with startup entrepreneurs. Stay tuned!