Telemedicine is broadly perceived as a solution that facilitates patient care. Today more than ever, people are looking for useful and accessible digital solutions to help them manage their health. Today more than ever, having experienced life in lockdown, people are looking for useful and accessible digital solutions to help them manage their health.
In France, the public has appreciated having easy access to one such solution in particular: telemedicine, or the possibility to consult with healthcare professionals remotely for maximum safety.
Telemedicine as a solution during the COVID-19 crisis
How are medical professionals to maintain their consultations and follow up with their patients in a pandemic? How can patients find reassurance quickly and easily? How can social distancing be implemented in the healthcare field to limit the spread of the virus?
Over the past few months, telemedicine has emerged as the natural solution to promote safe virtual access to otherwise busy medical practices.
It quickly received the backing of the French administration, which stated on its official website that, “any insured person, regardless of their place of residence, and any physician, regardless of specialty, can make use of virtual consultations.”
The exceptional measures taken by the French Social Security in response to the COVID-19 crisis made it easy for millions of French citizens to benefit from telemedicine:
- Virtual consultations are now fully reimbursed by the French Social Security, compared to the 70% coverage ordinarily provided for this medical act.
- Remote visits are now permitted not just with patients’ primary care physician, but also with any other doctor, without geographical restrictions.
On 19 May 2020, the French Ministry of Health issued a decree authorizing private pharmacies to conduct pharmaceutical consultations (for asthma, VKAs and DOACs) and patient medication assessments remotely under certain conditions.
The latest figures provided by the French Social Security confirm the need and demand for remote doctor’s visits: more than 550,000 virtual consultations were billed in March 2020, followed by over 1 million remote visits in April. That is equivalent to the total number predicted by the government for the entire year 2020.
Today, many telemedicine companies have contributed to the relief effort during this health crisis by making their services available for free. They are listed on the French Health Ministry’s website, Sante.fr (French only).
And before COVID-19?
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the rollout of telemedicine was already considered to be one of the pillars of France’s national public health strategy to combat medical deserts.
In these areas, patients often have to drive a long way to see their family doctor for basic things like renewing a prescription or a clinical follow-up appointment. Telemedicine allows them to optimise their care pathways and avoid long waiting times, for example when seeing a specialist doctor.
To put things into context, known waiting times for medical appointments in France can be up to six days for a general practitioner, 22 days for a paediatrician, 44 days for a gynaecologist and as long as 61 days for a dermatologist. (Source: Mutualité française – French only)
- For patients, virtual consultations allow easier access to care, simplifying things like medical follow-up for chronic illness and empowering them to take more active control of their healthcare.
- For healthcare professionals, this solution saves them time and makes it easier to follow up with patients at home when they are unable to come into the practice.
Overall then, telemedicine is broadly perceived as a solution that facilitates patient care.
Can telemedicine be trusted?
Virtual consultations are just as reliable as in-person appointments thanks to physicians’ qualifications and European regulatory requirements. Physicians who practice telemedicine remain bound by doctor-patient confidentiality rules as stipulated in the French Code of Medical Deontology.
In terms of data privacy, telemedicine platforms have to meet very specific quality standards and regulatory requirements. In France, in particular, it is mandatory for telemedicine platforms to be hosted on certified Health Data Hosting (HDS) servers (website in French).
Digital platforms dedicated to remote medicine are thereby obligated to guarantee the security of all communications (audio, video or electronic transmission of medical documents containing personal data) between healthcare professionals and their patients.
Ensuring the safety of prescriptions via telemedicine
Just as they would during face-to-face visits, doctors may write prescriptions for their patients at the end of a virtual consultation. Ensuring the safety of these prescriptions is vital, as undesirable side-effects of drugs are responsible for 10,000 to 30,000 deaths and over 130,000 avoidable hospital admissions each year according to a government-commissioned report (French only). In geriatric wards, for example, 23% of hospitalisations are the result of an undesirable side-effect of medication.
Telemedicine companies including MesDocteurs, Medecin Direct and HelloCare in France have integrated Synapse’s prescription aid tool to support an appropriate use of medication. The doctors who use it can ensure the safety of all their prescriptions in just a few clicks, taking into account the patient’s clinical background.
Users of telemedicine services – medical professionals and patients alike – thereby have the guarantee that these healthcare tools are trustworthy and safe.
Healthcare is undergoing a profound transformation, which had already started gaining momentum in recent years with the emergence of artificial intelligence and a variety of digital tools like telemedicine. Use of the latter is spreading fast, and the virtual consultation seems poised to become a permanent option in its own right for people seeking medical attention.
Jacques Lucas, physician and president of the French Health Ministry’s agency for digitalization in healthcare, confirmed this in an interview with national news broadcaster BFM, stating: “I am convinced that telemedicine has proven its value and its effectiveness, and that physicians will integrate it in their patient care practices going forward, including for the follow-up of chronically ill individuals.”