How Telehealth Can Help Achieve Universal Healthcare
July 6, 2022
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by Stephen Kanyi

At least half of the global population do not receive adequate healthcare.

Most of these live in the developing world; in urban slums and rural areas.

Moreover, with more than 100 million people at risk of falling back to extreme poverty due to health emergencies the case for universal healthcare has never been more urgent.

Providing healthcare to billions of people spanning more than a hundred is however monumental task for even the most resourceful governments in these regions. Also, important to note here is that even in developed countries such as the US, rural populations still lack access to basic healthcare services. Geography, aside from development level, is also great hindrance to providing adequate healthcare to remote communities in these locations.

But we have technology; with rising smartphone and internet penetration, we can at last reach these remote communities. Telehealth which has been booming in the last decade has helped connect rural communities to their respective national ‘healthcare grids’.

Beginning as a novel idea with services offered via television in the 90s today telehealth is becoming a full-fledged global industry reaching a global market value of USD 144.38 Billion in 2020 expected to reach USD 636.38 Billion by 2028.

With growth of smartphone ownership and an ever-increasing rate of internet connectivity there is a lot of potential for telehealth especially in areas that brick-and-mortar healthcare systems have been unable to reach.

The other half of the world that have been left out by ‘traditional’ healthcare can be reached. In India for instance a recent report found that “if telehealth replaced 30 to 40% of in-person outpatient consultations, India could save up to USD 10 billion and improve care for the poor and those living in remote areas.”

In short, telehealth can help achieve the universal healthcare vision.

Here are a few ways telehealth can be crucial towards achieving universal healthcare.

Bridging the rural-urban gap

Rural areas are home to around 60% of the world’s population but have access to just 30% of the doctors. This is a big problem especially for developing economies where the patient to doctor ratio is around six times lower than urban areas.

And, even in those much-acclaimed Community Health Centers that have become a substitute for hospitals in rural areas, there is a constant shortage of medical personnel by up to 82%. Not to mention the shortage of drugs and essential tools for a functioning medical center.

The basic truth is that today’s ‘brick-and-mortar’ healthcare model is failing rural areas and won’t be able to serve these areas well even in the near future. The gap is too big and the model all wrong. Increasing the number of CHCs while alleviating some of the problems felt at this level won’t be able to serve all of the rural areas’ needs.

We need a different approach. And this is where telemedicine can help.

You see, unlike CHCs, telemedicine can actually reach everywhere. Increasing rates of smartphone and internet penetration is making it possible to reach virtually everyone no matter where they reside. With telehealth we could make it so that no one is ‘forgotten by the system.’ This is the dream of universal healthcare.

Rural dwellers don’t have to travel long distances to get treatment. Instead, telehealth can provide remote diagnosis and create innovative ways of delivering medicine to remote areas.

In Rwanda for instance, Zipline a San Francisco based drone startup, has been making blood deliveries using drones that are catapulted into the air using zips (hence the name). In the mountainous region that is Rwanda with more than 65% of its population in rural areas reaching patients in need of not just blood but critical drugs is near impossible.

Using smartphones and drones for delivery, Zipline and government officials are using drones to provide supplies to these remote areas at faster times than cars.

In fact, so successful has this program been that it has been expanded to two Ghana and Nigeria who are currently running trials.

Addressing overcrowding at hospitals

As mentioned above, hospitals and community centers are simply not enough to serve rural populations. They are way too few, understaffed and don’t have enough medication. If and when patients do manage to reach these centers, usually after covering tens of kilometers sometimes by foot, these centers are overcrowded. Moreover, with really low doctor-patient ratios the level of attention a doctor can give a singular patient is very limited. Also, there are never enough facilities and drugs to serve all the patients.

Telemedicine could help alleviate this burden. Consultations and diagnosis, for instance, can be done remotely. And, with the help of technology like drone delivery, even dispensing of drugs doesn’t necessarily require a visit to the doctor’s office.

In India a report found that telemedicine had the potential to replace half of the in-person outpatient consultations in the whole country. These rates could ideally be replicated in other developing regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, all with similar population dynamics.

Simply put, telemedicine has the potential of serving over half of the developing world population, totaling around 3.1 billion people.

What we have today is barely scratching the surface. If we get this right, telemedicine could change healthcare forever as we know it.

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