An illustration of a hand holding a mobile phone with a doctor on the screen, surround by medicine
An illustration of a hand holding a mobile phone with a doctor on the screen, surround by medicine
Image copyright: IPPF

Will telemedicine change the way we deliver healthcare forever?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we do everything — including how we provide sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH) services.

From Japan to Albania to Venezuela, healthcare providers are turning to digital platforms such as Zoom, Facetime and WhatsApp to deliver services that have traditionally been provided face-to-face. These include comprehensive sex education, counselling and consultations for emergency contraceptive.

To put it into perspective, a recent survey of IPPF’s European Network (EN) found that 50% of the EN Members surveyed reported that they are providing SRH programmes through innovative approaches like telemedicine.

These changes may have been ‘forced’ upon healthcare professionals and patients alike but many service providers are starting to wonder what changes this move to telemedicine will have in the long term.

This is especially true when it comes to one of the most significant developments in service delivery — providing access to abortion care via telemedicine.

Before the coronavirus, telemedicine — providing medical consultations and prescriptions remotely — was already growing in popularity. The increased demand was partly because it meant people could side-step barriers to accessing services like waiting times for appointments.

In some cases, it was also a way to get around deliberately harmful restrictions for accessing abortion cares in some conservative states in America which meant women didn’t have to face a barrage of abuse outside abortion clinics.

Now the global demand for telemedicine is at a whole new level, especially when it comes to women accessing abortion safely and remotely.

Across the International Planned Parenthood Federation, we have seen many examples of governments working with our Member Associations to model good practice around abortion care as well.

Shining a spotlight on some examples in Europe, our Member Association in Austria, ÖGF (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Familienplanung), has been working to secure new regulations allowing women to receive medical abortion from a pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription which they can then take in the safety of their own homes.

Another IPPF Member Association — Family Planning Association of Nepal — as part of a consortium, petitioned the government to approve and adopt home-based medical abortion into their COVID-19 guidelines, and they succeeded. A victory, we hope will remain in place once the pandemic is over.

Women in Germany, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom can now have their mandatory counselling for abortion via video chat or over the phone rather than having to have it face-to-face, and have medical abortion pills posted or prescribed then and there.

But is telemedicine a stopgap or is it here to stay?

It’s hard to deny the benefits to both healthcare systems and patients when it comes to telemedicine. Healthcare systems will undoubtedly have less pressure on them with fewer people through their doors, healthcare workers workloads will be reduced and those who can’t physically attend appointments have an option to do it from the comfort of their home.

Telemedicine is the revolution healthcare needed and since the coronavirus outbreak, the benefits of telemedicine access are being felt across the world. The potential of telemedicine will benefit millions of women and girls who are currently facing barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare and advice. As the world’s largest provider of SRH, IPPF needs to look at how to harness the momentum of telemedicine and incorporate it into its service delivery beyond the coronavirus crisis.

Once this pandemic is over, I doubt very much healthcare provision will go back to how it used to be — we will be walking into a ‘new normal’ and telemedicine will be a big part of that.

Words by Amber Henshaw, Content Commissioner, IPPF

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