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Telemedicine: Huge advantages but risks need to be considered

  • Market Insight 17 December 2020 17 December 2020
  • Global

  • Insurance 2021 - the year ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate the demand for telemedicine services in the Asia Pacific region, as people are reluctant to attend hospitals or medical clinics in person.

Telemedicine is part of the broader trend of digital transformation in medicine which has the potential to address some of the challenges faced by developed and developing countries to provide accessible, cost effective and high quality health care services.

Telemedicine has enormous potential in improving patient outcomes. It could improve access to services and increase patient compliance, leading to better functional recovery. It also provides convenience, eliminating the need to travel and attend appointments in person. For doctors, it allows for productivity levels to be improved and would enable large hospitals to optimise their resources, for example, providing faster triage of patients.

However, with the adoption of any new technology health care providers should consider whether using telemedicine as an alternative to in-person care could expose themselves to medical malpractice claims. The increase in telehealth consultations has the potential to result in an increase in claims, particularly against GPs who are often relied upon to diagnose serious conditions from non-specific symptoms. Whilst the history given by the patient is important in arriving at a diagnosis, often visual cues are equally important. Whilst telemedicine should be conducted via video chat, difficulties and unfamiliarity with the platforms by both patients and doctors means that services may instead proceed via telephone, which means doctors are missing out on important visual cues. Another complicating factor is that many people have little insight into their own health and therefore verbalising/describing their symptoms can be incomplete.

Regulators in Hong Kong and Australia have issued guidelines to practitioners in respect of telemedicine consultations. A key theme emphasised is there should be no difference in the standard of care between face to face and telemedicine services. Doctors should consider whether telemedicine is clinically appropriate in each circumstance and ensure that proper arrangements are put in place to ensure continuity of care.

Doctors using telemedicine should consider whether their professional indemnity insurance arrangements are adequate to cover new risks that may fall into uninsured gaps in their coverage. Hazards include issues, errors or malfunctions in the technology platforms or breaches of patient's data privacy or ransomware.

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