This year, due to the effects of the Covid-19 emergency, telemedicine has seen exponential growth, and many technological and organisational developments – which would have probably been implemented in coming years – have been completed and implemented during these months of lockdown.
But what exactly is telemedicine? As suggested by the name, “tele” derives from a Greek word and means “far”. Telemedicine refers then to a collection of technologies – which now are digital, although until a few years ago were analogue – allowing remote provision of specific health services.
For more fragile individuals and those with chronic pathologies, telemedicine has demonstrated its immediate benefits, allowing millions of patients to continue their treatment plans without accessing hospitals, often overcrowded. In recent months, the use of telemedicine has therefore been an essential need, but the growth potential of this market had already emerged in recent years. Already in 2018 the global value of this sector was equal to 34 billion dollars; a figure which is amplified up to almost 186 billion dollars in the forecasts of 2026 (Fortune Business Insights).
The pandemic has also created a great deal of disruption for the majority of citizens. In Italy alone, during the 2020 over 14 million fewer specialist appointments and 12 million fewer diagnostic examinations have been performed than in previous years (provisional data). Many patients have failed to receive a screening, a medical examination for early diagnosis or a follow-up for a pathology. In these cases, remote examinations represent an effective option to reduce access to hospitals, without overlooking the needs of patients.
Behind the interest in telemedicine there are certainly several factors operating regardless of the emergency period we are experiencing, such as the need to contain some health costs by public administrations, universal access to Internet and the so- “smart” technologies for the detection and sharing of biometric data (e.g. cardiac detection technologies on smartwatches), the ageing of the population and the increase in chronic patients, but – above all – a progressive change of approach towards digital technologies by both patients and the medical class.
Menarini Group (particularly Guidotti, Malesci and Lusofarmaco) has also unconditionally supported several telemedicine projects with companies that provide tools allowing patients to participate in remote examinations. By using these new tools, they can engage online with their specialists who can continue to treat their patients remotely.
Although Italy lacked up-to-date national guidelines on telemedicine, in 2020 some regions implemented several projects in this field
In Tuscany, for example, a telemedicine platform was created back in April, thanks to which over 10,000 remote examinations have been performed, primarily for diabetic, cardiology and rheumatology patients who have been able to connect with their doctor via home PC or also via a mobile phone or iPad, using the app.
In other cases, e.g. in Lombardy, there were already a number of platforms even before the outbreak, managed by cooperatives of GPs. During the emergency, these have been adopted for real-time monitoring of Covid-19 patients who are isolating in their homes. At the end of December 2020, the Ministry of Health finally published a document which provides the national guidelines to be adopted on telemedicine, in particular televisits.
While in Europe telemedicine has only really started to take root in recent months, in Asia Pacific there has been extraordinary development in the sector.
In China, where there is already an ecosystem of digital medical solutions, through use of online platforms patients can easily purchase their medicines from home. The product can simply be added to their basket, and an existing prescription uploaded or an online medical consultation requested, simplified by artificial intelligence systems. This has seen growth particularly for the treatment of chronic illnesses, above all due to the huge number of patients looking for online tools for management of their condition.
When the Covid-19 emergency is resolved, we expect this new sector to no longer simply be a necessity, but will become part of a new normality, marking the beginning of a new era in “digital health”!