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Telemedicine: Do the benefits outweigh the privacy issues for patients?


With social distancing on the cards for the foreseeable future, the implementation of telemedicine has snowballed. Unfortunately, despite the benefits, this also kicks up some serious privacy issues for patients. Alejandro Coca, co-head of explores some of the challenges, and solutions, that will help build confidence in a now indispensable technology.

In the 1950s, the concept of telemedicine was first put into practice in the US, transmitting radiologic images at large distances via telephone. Originally a tool to reach patients living remotely, it has now become one of the fastest-growing areas of healthcare.

The Covid-19 pandemic has done nothing but accelerate this growth. At the beginning of the outbreak, GP surgeries urged patients not to come into their practice to prevent the potential spread of the virus and health secretary Matt Hancock advised that consultations should be done by telemedicine where possible. Since then, there’s been a dramatic increase in the use of telemedicine, with a survey by the Royal College of GPs finding that six in ten appointments in mid-July were conducted by telephone.

However, with rapid technological advancements comes potential risks and barriers, such as connectivity limitations and data privacy.

Providers must ensure they put patient safety first by ensuring they hire verified medical professionals and by investing in the right technology to facilitate telemedicine. We believe blockchain has a role to play in some of these key elements, helping ensure data privacy and patient safety.

What is telemedicine?

If you’ve yet to come across the term ‘telemedicine’, it’s defined as follows: ‘Telemedicine is the use of technology to virtually administer medical advice, prognosis, and support from a qualified practitioner to a telehealth patient.’ Telemedicine enables qualified healthcare professionals to safely and remotely provide their services to telehealth patients, eliminating in-person interactions and the chance of viral transmission.

Services offered via telemedicine include mental health support, chronic disease management, psychiatry, family planning, medication renewal, on-call visits, and much more. Often, telemedicine hours go beyond standard office hours for physicians, which is of particular benefit to those who live or work far away from the nearest healthcare centre.

Further, Telemedicine services can reach populations regardless of geography and its ability to respond to medical emergencies where there are critical healthcare shortages is beyond valuable.

Through this pandemic, the need to socially distance and protect the vulnerable has made telemedicine an essential service. The rise of telemedicine this year was not just a quick-fix as a stop-gap for the world to re-adjust to the effects of the pandemic, but a solution that is very much here to stay. A Forrester report estimates that there will be 20 million telemedicine care visits in the UK alone by the end of 2020. These virtual care services will and have become an accepted alternative to the traditional methods of delivering healthcare. 

The connectivity challenge

There are clearly many benefits to the telehealth boom – increased convenience, the potential to limit overhead costs, and even new insight into patients’ lives. Further, telemedicine has progressed past the traditional telephones of the 1950s and is widely done over video now. This delivers a better service, helping to improve patient outcomes. However, it’s not all plain sailing and there are some barriers to adoption.

Firstly, for clinicians working for a telemedicine provider, many have reported experiencing video fatigue, longer workdays, and a loss of work-life balance. Further, for many patients, particularly those that are located in rural and less-developed regions, access to a reliable internet connection is arguably the biggest barrier to connecting with clinicians online. Without an accessible and reliable broadband connection, there is no way they can get the treatment they may need.

The privacy challenge

Outside of these barriers, there is the issue of data privacy. Although telemedicine has truly taken off over the last year, it will still be the case that many will be hesitant to adopt the technology on the ground that they want to protect their health-related data.

As evidenced in the national rollout of the test and trace app, huge widespread concerns around the privacy of health data have emerged throughout the pandemic, which can quickly turn into unfounded conspiracy theories.

However, privacy concerns themselves are perfectly understandable, even more so when it comes to telemedicine. Some telemedicine services allow patients and doctors to share and store sensitive information such as test results and x-rays, meaning the right technology must be in place to ensure these records are protected.

The topic of using blockchain technology to protect patients’ medical records is not a new one. However, it isn’t something that has yet gained traction as healthcare institutions struggle to digitise and keep pace with technology advancements.

However, this is where we believe that the use of blockchain should be implemented, decentralising the storage of data so that no central party has control over its content, and nobody can tamper with the records because every member has to agree to its validity and can check the history of record changes.

The recruitment challenge

From doctors and nurses to radiologists and psychologists, healthcare professionals are being hired to supply the fastest growing healthcare area and its constant demands. An inefficient hiring process can result in costly lawsuits, imprisonment, brand suffering, reputational damage, casualty, and even loss of life. The true value of verification within the telemedicine industry is more important now than ever to alleviate recruiting challenges.

Why is it important though? As with a physical healthcare environment, a virtual one facilitated by telemedicine needs to provide patients with a safe environment. The key to achieving this is through the right medical professionals. It’s critical for healthcare professionals to be properly vetted before allowing them to practice on a telemedicine platform and therefore providers must ensure they source verified, credible healthcare professionals to be assured of their skills and qualifications.

With this in mind, an innovation that is gathering pace is blockchain-powered verification. For example, using a blockchain-enabled professional document verification platform can enable candidates to securely upload and verify private documents, such as passport or university certificates, providing them with a form of portable credentials. NHS recruiters and healthcare regulators can then view and verify candidates’ credentials against the blockchain.

From a recruiter’s standpoint, this can help to drastically streamline the verification process by eliminating the continual churn of verification requests on employers and educational institutions every time a healthcare professional applies for a new role.

For candidates themselves, the process is also expedited as their credentials only need to be verified once before being saved on the blockchain. They can then share this with potential employers at any point during their careers, rather than having to be verified each time when applying for a role.

By using blockchain-enabled professional document verification, telemedicine providers can eliminate the risk of hiring unqualified, fraudulent individuals, ensuring that patients and co-workers are protected.

Building confidence

With telemedicine increasing at a rapid pace, it is critical that providers build confidence in any solution, as well as making it as accessible as possible. While the focus previously was all about getting a service up and running quickly, the focus now needs to be on implementing a long-term solution with the patient at the heart of the service.

When it comes to healthcare, patient safety and privacy should always come first and blockchain technology has a clear role to play in many aspects of telemedicine.

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