Intended for healthcare professionals


Why telemedicine is here to stay

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: (Published 06 October 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m3603
  1. Chris Stokel-Walker, freelance journalist
  1. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
  1. stokel{at}

Virtual consultations and triaging have reached a tipping point, pushed on by the covid-19 pandemic. Chris Stokel-Walker reports on what a market worth at least $250bn means for doctors

“It’s arrived with a bang,” says Sam Wessely, a London based GP. “When covid-19 hit, we were instructed to discourage patients from entering the practice physically in order to keep them and the staff safe.” But how were they to support patients remotely?

The obvious answer was telemedicine. Telephone consultations have been in use for over a century1 and video calls were first trialled by doctors in Nebraska in 19642 (using television signals instead of the internet). But while not unfamiliar, neither were in popular use with doctors or patients, and the experience of the technology had been mixed.

Yet the signs are that we have now reached a tipping point, pushed by the pandemic. Across the US alone, nearly half of healthcare consumers are now using telehealth, according to consultancy firm McKinsey—up from one in 10 last year.3

That’s to be expected when physical visits to hospitals and GP surgeries have been limited. Doctors who have long held out against the idea of telemedicine have now seen how it can work and like it. Some of the burden has been shouldered by telephone calls, particularly for patients for whom Skype or Facetime is a step too far. A survey by the Royal College of GPs found that six in 10 appointments in mid-July were conducted by telephone.4 But others are embracing video chats.

“GPs are a pretty conservative profession, and we do tend to revert to what we know,” says Wessely. “What we have now is a new …

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