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Turning to Telemedicine: Pandemic Rewrites the Future of Health Care

With an estimated one third of the global population worldwide facing a lockdown, the need for remote health care is accelerating growth in telemedicine, a trend under way before the COVID-19 pandemic. For Dr. Shai Misan, YPO member and Board Member of  SaluberMD, a digital health services company founded in 2016, the crisis has proven the benefits of telemedicine during times of crisis and beyond. “Health care will never go back to what it was before,” says Misan.

Telemedicine: A key response to COVID-19

As an emergency physician based in Italy, Misan witnessed firsthand the effects of the pandemic, including the spread of the virus among the community of doctors and medical professionals at the front lines. “In Italy, almost 200 doctors have already paid with their lives, 99 in Milan alone,” says Misan who believes that this exponential spread could have been minimized by using the physical separation provided by telemedicine.

In Bergamo, the area in Italy with the most reported deaths, major hospitals are considered one of the main sources of transmissions, with COVID-19 patients indirectly passing the infections to non-COVID-19 patients. Ambulances and infected personnel, especially those without symptoms, transmitted the virus to other patients and into the community. In the U.K., with the with the pandemic turning clinics and hospitals into “no-go zones”, primary care doctors are now doing many of their consultations online or by telephone. “We’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week,” said Dr. Sam Wessely, a general practitioner in London. 

From his own experience, Misan has been able to remotely treat more than 50 patients with only a very small number having to go to hospitals. “In COVID-19, the most important element is to manage the first stages of symptoms, including a dry cough and fever. Other symptoms can be fatigue, difficulty in breathing, and loss of smell and taste,” he says. “Online services allow patients to consult with doctors over the phone, video, or direct messaging, instead of going to a clinic and risking spreading the virus to others, including the medical professionals.”

Since determining that this coronavirus was a pandemic, Misan’s company has witnessed accelerated growth in demand from around the world. “It is like a wave. The highest growth was in Europe and the Gulf and now is in the U.S, as people (in different geographies) become aware of the benefit of staying at home and avoiding clinics and hospitals.”

A future of opportunities

While there is a growing case for remote care during these times, once this public health emergency is behind us, Misan thinks health care will never go back to the traditional face-to-face model.

For the next 10-12 months, he believes fear of more doctors and nurses getting infected and social distancing becoming the new norm will continue to drive demand for remote health care.

“Online visits for different medical conditions, not only those related to COVID-19 cases, will continue,” explains Misan. “It is like e-commerce times in health care. Much of the technology — such as wearables, implantables and big data science that provide access to patient’s historical data on demand — already exists, and more is quickly being developed as the benefits of remote health care are becoming more evident.”

Misan adds that the exponential growth of the sector is reinforced by changes beginning to take place among the key stakeholders across the world, including insurance companies and public health care systems.

“With the steady paradigm shift from normal face-to-face to virtual visits, more government and insurance companies are paying for these consultations.” Last month, America’s Medicare program, which covers more than 60 million elderly people, said it would allow online patient visits.

While the sector still needs to overcome obstacles before becoming mainstream ­­— including regulatory and commercial hurdles, patient acceptance and a digital infrastructure — for Misan, the social and medical practices that are happening in response to the pandemic will continue to cascade once the crisis subsides.

“Whether in routine and outpatient visits or for any infectious disease, including the seasonal flu, society is now getting used to better and faster health services, so it will be difficult to go back,” he adds.

As an entrepreneur and a physician, Misan also sees the pandemic as ushering in a huge investment and business opportunity to transition local and global health care systems.

“With the technology and networks of qualified doctors that allows a person in Italy to get primary care from a local doctor or a second opinion from California in a short period of time, we have the opportunity to move information rather than people, providing greater efficiency, speed and accessibility at a global scale.”

For more stories like these, check out the COVID-19: Leading Through Crisis page on YPO.org.

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Rola Tassabehji began her career as a marketing trainee in Unilever Arabia and from there moved into several management roles within the marketing and communications function in Unilever global and regional teams, including brand development manager, Dove, Unilever Africa, Middle East, and Turkey and communications manager, Unilever North Africa and Middle East. Following ten years with Unilever, she relocated to Abu Dhabi, U.A.E and joined the team that launched INSEAD campus in the Middle East as external relations director. Rola completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Canada, has a Masters degree from the American University of Beirut and a post graduate degree in journalism from London School of Journalism.