Juniper Research predicts that the total number of teleconsultations globally will grow at 17.1% CAGR to reach 765 million in 2025, up from 348 million in 2020.
In a recent study entitled “The Doctor is Always In: How Teleconsultations Improve Patient Care”, the market research firm pointed out the increased efficiency in healthcare provision and the improved standard of care that teleconsultations deliver make them attractive to both patients and healthcare providers.
“While the average person will use teleconsultation services 3.6 times per year in 2025, we expect this figure to be higher in countries with universal healthcare systems and/or where teleconsultation appointments are mostly, if not fully reimbursed,” said research author Adam Wears.
Governments loosened restrictions
The social restrictions brought on by COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of teleconsultation in the past year.
Juniper Research noted that that many governments have loosened previous limits on the practice of telemedicine and teleconsultation in particular – resulting in dramatic increase in use of these services.
In Australia, following calls in March last year from several industry groups to relax such restrictions, the government announced a health funding package worth AU$100 million (US$77.8 million) to fund a new telehealth service, subsidised entirely by Medicare. The scheme allows healthcare professionals to conduct teleconsultations with patients; specifically, patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, patients with chronic conditions, those who are pregnant, and the elderly.
This scheme was subsequently extended, on 30th March 2020, to all Australians until 30th September 2020, while on the same day, an additional $74 million AUD ($57.6 million) in funding was provided to support teleconsultations for people living with mental health conditions, as well as a digital mental health portal for frontline health workers.
In India, several telemedicine initiatives, including its own teleconsultation service, eSanjeevani OPD, which launched in April 2020 and was subsequently used to deliver over 1 million teleconsultations. The government also issued new guidelines for telemedicine practitioners in March 2020 to enable patients with chronic conditions and those who live in isolated rural areas to access healthcare. This new guidance permitted doctors to utilise any appropriate form of digital communication, such as video, voice, and text, to diagnose patients, as well as issuing prescriptions.
With these initiatives, telemedicine practitioners worldwide have seen significant growth in the past 12 months. For example, China’s Ping An Good Doctor, which experienced a 900% increase in new user sign-ups and a 800% surge in the number of consultations being performed between December 2019 and January 2020
Government deregulation of teleconsultation services however did not have the same results in South Korea where restrictions were temporarily relaxed to eliminate local COVID-19 transmissions.
“This is because of to the country’s long history of resisting efforts to implement telemedicine – so much so that a subsequent study found that at the height of infection in early 2020, only 0.69 teleconsultations were being conducted per day per healthcare facility,” said Wears.
Moreover, it did not help that the decision to relax the rules was taken without buy-ins from local stakeholders and patient groups, however, and so received considerable backlash from organisations such as the Korean Medical Association.
Significant technical infrastructure required
Juniper Research pointed out that teleconsultation services require significant technical infrastructure to function successfully, as patients and healthcare providers interact remotely using dedicated healthcare portals, apps or consumer video calling platforms.
For these services to become an integral element of healthcare provision, platforms must develop solutions that cater to differing capacities of regional healthcare sectors. The market research firm identified cloud services and 5G connectivity as key to enabling local healthcare providers to benefit from remote teleconsultation technologies.
It added that a robust, good-quality broadband connection is essential, something that is hard for small healthcare institutions, rural hospitals, and patients to acquire, particularly in the developing world.
Not surprising therefore that the Juniper Research study predicts that the need for mobile devices and connectivity will limit uptake of teleconsultation services to developed regions, with over 50% of teleconsultations will occur in North America and Europe by 2025.
“Teleconsultation services require high bandwidth, which is often unavailable in developing regions, limiting the impacts of services in these areas. However, the report predicts that 5G technologies can be used as a last-mile solution to underpin service provision in areas where Internet connectivity is sparse or inadequate,” said Wears.