Is telehealth here to stay?

Australia witnessed the rollout of telehealth services in March 2020. Its aim was to minimise the risk of community transmission of coronavirus and help to better protect both patients and health care providers during the pandemic.

Not limited to just medical doctors, a range of healthcare providers could provide virtual health services to patients including:

  • Specialist
  • Allied health providers (including chiropractors, physiotherapy and osteopaths)
  • Mental health professionals
  • Nurse practitioners  

An abrupt change on such a large-scale came with some challenges. However, telehealth has widely been heralded as a success. Given its benefits, it’s easy to see why.

Elderly woman having a telehealth consultation

Telehealth Benefits

Apart from the obvious benefit of reducing the chance of community-based transmission of infectious diseases, there has been several other key uses, such as:

  • The ability to triage patients more effectively, which helps reduce the burden on emergency departments.
  • Follow up appointments are more streamlined.
  • The use of electronic scripts makes life easier for the practitioner and the patient.

The benefits also extend to certain patient demographics. Older adults are more likely to seek consultations from GP’s due to issues with mobility and functionality. Thus, having a consultation from the comfort of their home, as opposed to getting to a physical location, has a profound positive impact on them.

The benefits of telehealth so far pertain to standard medical practice, but what about in the allied health field?

Telehealth and Allied Health

When it comes to the benefit of virtual health within the allied health field, it gets arguably a little more complicated. And that’s because many musculoskeletal based practitioners (such as chiropractors) develop their treatment based on subjective findings. For example, regions of soft tissue tenderness/tightness and lack of joint mobility are classically discovered via a hands-on examination approach, something that is not possible to do virtually.

We know though that these findings are not the be-all and end-all and a lot of relevant information can be garnered using both verbal and written means. For example, the use of body-charts where patients can easily annotate the area and type of their pain/discomfort (such as dull pain vs sharp pain) is beneficial. Range of motion and functional screening tests (e.g., squats and endurance tests) can also be recorded virtually. However, it’s important extra care is taken since practitioners can not support the patient physically.

Another bonus of virtually ‘examining’ a patient from their home is the ability to consider their environment and how it is affecting them. For example, the patient’s posture while sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch and getting in and out of bed. Traditionally, practitioners would have to visualise the environment and the patient’s movements. However, being able to see the patient’s movements can be more beneficial.

Virtual health still has loads of application when it comes to other allied health therapies. Guided exercise and rehabilitation measures are classically involved in most patient’s treatment plans, so more emphasis can be placed on this. An increased focus on self-management strategies, such as –

  • Using stretching and foam rolling for symptomatic relief of tender areas, and
  • Ergonomic style assessments where advice can be given regarding postural aggravations.
  • Being mindful of certain movements and how they are affecting you and adapting accordingly, be it something that is relieving or aggravating your condition.
  • Increasing physical activity in general.

These virtual therapies help drive self-efficacy, which is certainly the goal of musculoskeletal based therapy. Moreover, it has a positive run-on effect for the patient and the health care system in general.

Is Telehealth Here to Stay?

So, is telehealth here to stay? As a society, we’re definitely fortunate to be living in a technological age that allows us the ease of virtual health. But to understand the efficacy of telehealth truly, studies must be done exploring both the positive and negative aspects of it. Only then can we create a healthcare system nimble enough to help us withstand future healthcare crises.

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Dr Lachlan Fisher, Associate Chiropractor at Balanced Body Chiropractic