COVID left the world, let alone the health care industry, in a unique situation/landscape. It created the urgency for healthcare to be delivered remotely, necessitating the adaptation of digital and remote solutions. While much of the groundwork for these technologies existed prior to COVID, there was a hesitation for acceptance of these, and the effectiveness was often discounted by patients and doctors alike. The topics of telehealth and remote healthcare delivery have been an area of research for some time now. In 2015 for instance, research and studies addressed the effectiveness of video delivered cognitive behavioral therapy, however even with much explaining, doctors still lacked acceptance of the idea.
When the COVID outbreak spread throughout the world, doctors’ visits become dangerous and, in many cases, near impossible. Yet the necessity for people to seek care did not dissipate with the impossibility of doctor visits, and many people still had an urgent need to seek medical care. Many of these people then turned to the internet and digital-based solutions for treatment and diagnosis. A report published by Bain & Company indicated that the number of new users on Ping An Good Doctor, a Chinese healthcare services platform, increased by approximately 900% in January of this year as compared to December of 2019. These technologies have existed for some time, however, the benefits to be gained from them have lacked recognition. The COVID outbreak has assisted the adoption of these technologies by dismantling both behavioral and economic barriers to allow the widespread employability of telemedicine. The pandemic created the necessity for adaptation and has helped physicians deliver healthcare to those that need it during a surge in demand coupled with a risk associated with physical face-to-face visits.
However, it was not only patient and provider acceptance that was hindering widespread adaptation: it also required government support, regulations, and insurer acceptance. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and commercial health plans for instance have largely waived co-pays for telemedicine visits as a means to encourage utilization in this time of need. COVID created an environment where the urgency of the situation was prevalent enough, making it necessary for these stakeholders to converge and their goals to align, all accepting telemedicine almost simultaneously. However, the urgency of the situation came at a cost. Both doctors and patients have recognized the need for telemedicine, and are now longing to access a doctor by any digital means necessary – and with this shift, the obsession with privacy was reduced. Due to the circumstances, mediums like Skype were now an “acceptable” means of communicating sensitive information. While these are “OK”, they should not set the standard. The Bain & Company report asserted that Asia-pacific consumers are increasingly interested in preventative health, convenience, and ownership of their care. If data ownership is truly important, then the current approach of “Telehealth in any format” is insufficient to ensure the privacy of data.
Many of the alternatives that have been implemented in this quick adaptation do not meet the necessary standard of data protection. Although consumers may view the technicalities of data privacy as trivial, many of the acts and legislation are meant to empower the consumer rather than limit their access to care. While it is reasonable that non-compliant alternatives have been used in some cases due to the sudden shift to telemedicine as the primary option for safe treatment, it will be important to not discount this issue. The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States, for instance, have recognized the urgency for telemedicine and have temporarily exercised its enforcement discretion not to impose “penalties for non-compliance (..) under the HIPAA rules against covered health care providers in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19”. While this is an example of a temporary measure, it will be important to ensure that existing standards guided by laws such as HIPAA and GDPR are upheld as this technology progresses and it is adopted on a larger and more uniform scale as we develop healthcare delivery in the future.