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17 February 2021

Telemedicine in Belgium: barriers and facilitators for physicians and patients

Telemedicine is a broad term. For the purpose of this article, we will define telemedicine as a two-way video and audio-based interaction between a healthcare professional and a patient concerning a health topic or issue, replacing a regular face-to-face conversation. For the sake of simplicity, the term virtual consultations will be used in the rest of the article.

What is the state of virtual consultations in Belgium? Did you already give it a try, or not? Are patients interested in virtual consultations?

 

To answer these questions, we recently launched a poll on LinkedIn:


LinkedIn poll: Have you already consulted a healthcare professional through a virtual consultation?
One third of the participants confirmed that they have already had a virtual consultation. The majority indicated that while they have never consulted a healthcare professional through a virtual consultation, they are interested in it.

 

Even though this poll does not present a representative sample of the Belgian population, it shows there is an interest in virtual consultations. As a marketer, I am curious to find an answer to the following questions: What triggers this interest on the side of patients? And what are the barriers towards a wide adoption of virtual consultations in Belgium?

 

What triggers this interest on the side of patients?

When stepping into the patient’s shoes, we can observe some advantages: no need to go and sit in a waiting room, no need to leave your house, it will save you money and you can talk to your healthcare professional from the safe environment of your home.

 

This safe environment cannot be underestimated. Figures from Stichting Kankerregister show that 5000 less cancer diagnoses were made in the period between March and September 2020 compared to the same period last year. Patients are postponing diagnoses and treatment. One of the reasons for this is the patient’s concern to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Connecting with patients in a virtual way could provide a partial solution to this problem.

 

What are the barriers towards a wide adoption of virtual consultations in Belgium?

From a physician’s perspective, there are several barriers to overcome when looking at virtual consultations. Research from Het Federaal Kenniscentrum voor de Gezondheidszorg (KCE) in Belgium shows why physicians are still reluctant to adopt virtual consultations:

  • Insufficient experience with technology
    Based on our experience in several pharmaceutical companies, we observe that the technical part does not come so naturally for a lot of physicians. A quote we noted during an advisory board meeting we organized for one of our clients says it all: ‘I am a doctor; they can’t expect from me that I am an IT specialist.’
  • The lower remuneration (€20) per consult
    Since March 2020 there is a temporary reimbursement of virtual consultations as a replacement for face-to-face visits. When you consider the preparation time needed, this amount can be considered as quite low.
  • Not being able to do a physical examination
    This is often crucial. For rheumatologists, for example, it is important to do a physical examination of joints. This examination is an important part of assessing people with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. However, monitoring patients who are already diagnosed and living with rheumatoid arthritis can be done via virtual consultations. A 2020 study of Alaska Native people with RA found no difference in disease activity or quality of care between those who received care in person or via virtual consultations.

 

From a patient’s point of view, there are also some barriers when it comes to virtual consultations:

  • No access to technology
    This is often the case for older patients or people with low incomes.
  • The desire for face-to-face contact with their physician
    Some patients find it harder to express themselves in a virtual setting.
  • The belief that the diagnose is of a lesser quality

 

There are barriers for both the physician and the patient. As a healthcare marketer, it is important to understand these barriers and find solutions to overcome them. Some barriers are out of your hands. The remuneration issue, for example, is something we should leave up to the government. So, what can you concretely do to facilitate the adoption of virtual consultations?

 

First, you can help healthcare professionals to gain more experience with technology. This can be done by organizing virtual trainings and/or webinars with tips on how to do virtual consultations. The same can be done for patient organizations by setting up webinars with topics such as “How to prepare for a virtual consultation”. If they feel well prepared, it will be easier for patients to express themselves in a virtual setting which will help them to get the most out of their virtual consultation.

 

Secondly, when you decide to partner with developers of telemedicine services, make sure to involve the physicians and patients in the design and development. This will help you to have valuable input and they will be more inclined to use your service. In the end, it always comes down to understanding and responding to the needs of your customer.

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References:

Healthline, KCE, VRT (Nov. 2020) and VRT (March 2020)

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