"For patients who lack options, a virtual visit can mean the difference between going with or without care"

“Right now, I can see all my patients through my mobile phone,” says Prakash Paudyal, a pulmonologist and member of the Rotary Club of Jawalakhel, Nepal. Paudyal uses a Kubi device to turn a tablet into a “mini-robot” for remote monitoring of his COVID-19 patients who are in isolation at Nepal National Hospital. Paudyal learned about the Kubi and other telehealth practices during a vocational training team trip to the San Francisco area last year. “I do one round with all my [protective] gear on, and then I see all my patients through this mini-robot,” he says, thankful that the Kubi helps protect him from exposure to the virus.

The use of telehealth has surged worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, a study by McKinsey found that 46 percent of consumers are now using telehealth, up from 11 percent in 2019. Broadly defined, telehealth includes everything from virtual visits with a doctor to remote monitoring of a patient’s vitals to mobile health technologies.

The rapid increase in examining and treating patients remotely because of stay-at-home orders has not only helped in the fight against the coronavirus; it has also prompted a conversation about what the future will look like. What are the benefits of telehealth, and what controls for safety and privacy should be in place? One clear benefit is making health care more accessible to more people. For patients who lack transportation options or who live in remote areas, a virtual visit can mean the difference between being able to consult a doctor and going without care.

Telemedicine, typically defined as a virtual exam with a physician, requires access to the internet, which about 40 percent of the global population still lacks. But with the proliferation of smartphones, that’s becoming less of a barrier. Barbara Kiernan, a member of the Rotary Club of Catalina (Tucson), Arizona, has been working on a global grant project to bridge the distance between doctors and underserved patients in Sonora, Mexico, by supplying the equipment and technology needed for telemedicine, including solar power and internet access. They found that once community health care providers received the equipment and training, they were able to work with doctors located in bigger villages, allowing them to treat patients remotely. “Before, [rural villagers] really only got medical care during a crisis,” Kiernan says. With telemedicine available, “it’s shifted to preventive care.”