Fivefold increase in telemedicine use since pandemic

Medical Council research sees notable drop in numbers indicating frequent attendances to general practice

Findings from the latest research on the use of telemedicine by patients conducted for the Medical Council has shown a fivefold increase since early March 2020.

The medical regulatory body’s research found that in early March, before the introduction of the first set of Covid-19 public health restrictions, only 4 per cent of the population had ever engaged with a telemedicine service.

The impact of the pandemic and the rapid changes in the way healthcare was delivered had resulted in an increase, with over a fifth of the population having experienced telemedicine, according to the findings.

The Medical Council has also produced a guide to help patients understand what is involved in a telemedicine consultation.

It explains how such consultations work, what they can expect from a telemedicine consultation with a doctor and what patients can do in preparation for the consultation to help ensure the doctor can provide the appropriate care.

There was a greater likelihood of older adults having used telemedicine to access their own general practitioner (GP) or specialist, whereas for younger users there appeared to have been greater usage of telephone triage-type services operated by health insurers, according to the research.

Many were using telemedicine for repeat prescriptions, as regular GP visits may be unavailable at the current time.

The numbers indicating that they visited their GP more frequently were notably down since March, but most suggested that they had only used telemedicine on a limited basis.

Most of the people surveyed suggested that they would continue to use telemedicine more frequently in the future. For many, it would appear to broadly address their needs, although just a third indicated that it “meets my care needs”.

Four out of five (80%) said they were satisfied with the telemedicine service they had used.

More than half suggested they were likely to use telemedicine more frequently in the future, with a fifth (21%) saying that they were unlikely to do so.

Those who said they were less likely to be frequent users tended to be older, from less affluent backgrounds and female more so than male.

Perceptions of telemedicine were broadly very positive, with up to half of respondents happy they did not have to attend a particular practice, and exactly half indicating that it was more convenient for them.

However, only one in three agreed that it necessarily met their care needs. For one in four, it connected them to doctors that they would not otherwise have been able to access.

In the research, the main benefits of telemedicine had been identified as “ease of access”, “cost effective”, “minimises physical contact with others” and “more convenient to attend via telemedicine”.

The President of the Medical Council, Dr Rita Doyle, said: “This research has shown that Irish patients have adapted and changed their behaviours in light of the challenges faced by the pandemic. Doctors have also had to adapt rapidly to meet the care needs of their patients with doctors around the country going above and beyond the norm in such a difficult time for the country.”

“The significantly high rates of satisfaction levels amongst those who have had a telemedicine consultation, along with many doctors who are new themselves to the provision of care via telemedicine, reflects very positively on the professionalism and dedication of doctors in Ireland,” added Dr Doyle.

The research was carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes.

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