How you see your doctor could be forever changed by coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a spike in demand for digital health services that many experts hope are here to stay.

With lockdown measures in place around the globe, going to see your local physician if you’re unwell isn’t an option for the vast majority of people.

That’s meant a much larger volume of patients getting triaged by telephone or online and consulting their doctors remotely. There are now plenty of apps that can check your symptoms and connect you with a doctor if you’re feeling unwell.

“Patients have always liked it,” Clare Gerada, a family doctor in London, told CNBC. “It’s been doctors that have been resistant to introducing it.”

Gerada, co-founder of digital consultation platform eConsult, said she found it “odd” physicians were so opposed to going digital when “almost 100% of them will use online banking or online ways of booking their holiday.”

Now attitudes are changing as phone and video appointments become more commonplace. Patients are advised not to visit their doctor physically unless absolutely necessary to prevent the virus from spreading.

That’s led to increased uptake of telemedicine services from the likes of Teladoc, MDLIVE and American Well, as well as international competitors such as Britain’s Babylon, Sweden’s Kry and France’s Doctolib.

Ali Parsa, CEO of Babylon, says a long-time skeptic of smartphone-based health care recently turned around and asked him if they should use remote consultation software.

“Huge critics turned around because, when the need came and the old way of doing stuff was so inadequate, all of these nonsense objections went away,” he told CNBC.

Human cost

Online symptom assessment providers like Germany’s Ada are also gaining traction.

Claire Novorol, Ada’s co-founder and chief medical officer, says the company built a screening tool for Covid-19 due to the “tremendous pressure” faced by health workers.

“There’s really a strong need for online tools that can help people self-assess,” Novorol told CNBC.

“I think digital health offerings will continue to be extremely necessary. And my expectation is that, even beyond this period … this will accelerate a permanent change”

That need to reduce strain on primary care facilities could highlight an opportunity for technologies like artificial intelligence. But there’s skepticism over how it could be applied.

Babylon found itself in hot water in 2018 over claims that its AI chatbot was able to diagnose medical conditions as accurately as a doctor. The description drew criticisms from general practitioners in the U.K., who labeled the claim “dubious.”

Still, Parsa believes that the use of AI will be crucial to driving down costs in primary care and complimenting telehealth services. He said a combination of the two could also better serve people with chronic conditions like diabetes and mental health disorders.

The tech entrepreneur, whose father recently passed away after contracting the virus, said a “huge price” had been paid because of the health crisis.

“I lost my own wonderful father to Covid-19,” Parsa said. “We can’t carry on having paid the price we paid … to go back to doing things the way we used to. It’s just criminal to sacrifice so much and not learn from it.”

‘Paradigm shift’

Though doubts remain over the application of AI in everyday health care, experts can agree on one thing: the telemedicine phenomenon is likely here to stay.

“This was never a technology problem, it was always a cultural problem and it was a cultural problem that made excuses about the technology,” Parsa said.

“That all evaporated when we changed our culture of diddling to a culture of doing. And I hope this culture of doing now stays.”

Research firm Forrester estimates U.S. virtual care visits will top 1 billion this year due to the pandemic and other factors such as ongoing care management and mental health needs.

“The Covid-19 pandemic will forever change the face of healthcare, as a paradigm shift has occurred,” Forrester analysts Jeff Becker and Arielle Trzcinski wrote in a note earlier this month.

“The traditional barriers to adoption, such as awareness, cost, and regulation, are no longer valid in today’s reality, and demand for telehealth … will soar well beyond the period of crisis.”

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