Symptom checkers’ impact on telemedicine adoption

Photo of Aleksandra KwiecieńAleksandra Kwiecień
December 15, 2021
... min read

Telemedicine has been available for several years now. In some places, we saw a dramatic increase in its use from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. The pandemic accelerated its usage, and yet many healthcare providers still struggle with telemedicine adoption. Could symptom checkers be the key to solving these challenges?

At a glance:
Integrating e-triage solutions with digital touchpoints enables patients to be more active, better informed, and more aware of their options. Illustration by Aga Więckowska.

Why adopt telemedicine?

Telemedicine is a method of providing remote medical care via phone calls, video consults, and text-based conversations. These digital means of communication are cost- and time-saving alternatives to in-person visits for low-acuity patients, consultations, re-issuing prescriptions, various therapies, and more.

Despite the myriad benefits to both patients and clinicians, pre-pandemic adoption rates of telemedicine were surprisingly low.

Telemedicine usage increased rapidly when the pandemic hit the global healthcare market in 2020. In the early months, access to healthcare facilities was limited to the most urgent cases, and even those needs were difficult to meet. Hospitals were blocked with incoming coronavirus cases and struggled with the supply of safety equipment and the availability of medical experts.

During that time, telehealth use peaked. People needed help, and telemedicine was the best option.
Growth in telehealth usage. Image by Adrian Leszczuk. Source: Symptomate Survey conducted in February–April 2021.

In the following months, telemedicine use dropped slightly, but levels plateaued at a rate of 38 times higher than in pre-pandemic years.

Barriers to telemedicine adoption

Despite the initial interest, telemedicine adoption remains vulnerable to user reluctance, the slow spread of information about e-health resources, and the usual challenges of traditional, face-to-face healthcare, like physician availability, improper triage, and understanding patient needs.

Slow adoption by patients

Patients adapt slowly to new healthcare technologies, like telemedicine, and this is usually due to low user awareness. The reasons for this are patient behaviors that were shaped for many years. For many of them, face-to-face visits seem to be the most obvious, easiest, and safest option. Additionally, patients are not necessarily fluent in digital technologies.

Poor information exchange

Connecting data from telemedicine providers and physical facilities is complex. Health systems using e-health platforms and EHRs often lack system integration and interoperability.

Misuse of health e-services

Similar to in-person visits, telehealth services are not always optimally booked. Nowadays, digital front doors are filled with multiple services, descriptions, and information, among which patients can feel lost. A proper triaging mechanism could direct patients to appropriate virtual care services, as well as in-person care if needed.

Lack of continuity of care

On-demand telemedicine services are often provided by the next available physician. The convenience of remote care and short waiting times can often disrupt the continuity of care. Furthermore, uncoordinated, fragmented care can result in unnecessary testing, conflicting treatments, and weakened physician-patient relationships.

Fortunately, symptom checkers can alleviate many of the barriers to telemedicine use.

How can symptom checkers increase telemedicine adoption rates?

The core function of any symptom checker is to perform a preliminary health assessment of patients and generate a triage level.. Being able to assess patients’ or clients’ health ahead of a visit allows organizations to offer personalized, modern health services. This includes telemedicine options like video, text, and chat consultations for non-urgent cases, but also prescription refills or mental health support that must be provided on the same day.

Our recent Symptomate Survey of Infermedica’s free-to-use symptom checker allowed us to analyze whether all in-person visits are actually necessary. We found that over 20% of respondents who required medical consultation were advised to use telemedicine instead of an in-person visit.

Read more from the Symptomate Survey. Download the report.
Types of telecommunication recommended to Symptomate users. Based on the responses of 2,113 participants. Source: Symptomate Survey conducted in February–April 2021.

Comparing patient intentions to Symptomate recommendations shows that over 12 percent points of visits could be redirected from a doctor’s office to remote telemedicine.
Based on the responses of 2,113 participants. Source: Symptomate Survey conducted in February–April 2021.

Linking symptom checkers to telemedicine

Symptom checkers can be enhanced by adding personalized widgets to the results screen of each patient. This way, it is possible to present users with personalized service offers for digital health alternatives to traditional paths. Patients with mild symptoms who are advised to self-care or seek consultation could especially benefit from digital care options.

Providing an option for audio, video, or text teleconsultation broadens patients’ choices and opens a new door for digital healthcare adoption. It often comes with additional benefits such as the possibility of selecting preferred physicians, flexible communication channels, shorter times-to-visit, and even instant consultations.

Symptom checkers also benefit physicians by receiving patient information before the visit and incorporating it into the patient’s electronic health record. Healthcare managers can also use symptom checker data to actively manage incoming patients by proposing shorter waiting times for those with higher triage levels and telemedicine services for those with mild symptoms.

All of this is good news, especially since many patients and customers are open to using symptom checkers.

Readiness of patients to use telehealth solutions

Our afore-mentioned Symptomate Survey shows that people are interested in using symptom checkers. Over 80% of all respondents are likely to use Symptomate in the future. Since we also know that over 44% of users were unsure whether they needed to see a doctor, we are confident that users will come back to symptom checkers time and time again for evidence-based medical advice.

Benefits for telemedicine providers

Medical uncertainty is common among those googling their symptoms and seeking medical advice online. As an alternative, healthcare providers could propose high-quality tools for self-health assessment as part of their digital front doors. Integrating e-triage solutions with digital touchpoints enables patients to be more active, better informed, and more aware of their options. Therefore, trusted tools like symptom checkers can advocate for the use of telemedicine.

The benefits are clear—lower costs, improved access to care, better access to preventive care, convenience for patients, and reduced spread of infections. Our results have also shown that symptom checker users can avoid unnecessary ED visits, with telemedicine providing a necessary alternative for these patients. The Symptomate Survey reveals that out of the group that before running a symptom check planned to go to the ED, 12.8% decided to instead consult with a physician first, and 5.1% stayed at home. Among those who intended to seek medical consultation, 7% stayed at home and self-cared as advised by the symptom checker. We are confident that symptom checkers help avoid unnecessary visits in a safe manner since they are programmed based on expert guidance and input from many medical professionals as well as thousands of evidence-based medical concepts.

Another significant benefit is the support for medical specialists using telemedicine. Having a symptom checker at the digital front door means not only guiding patients to the right help but also inserting all essential patient data into physicians’ hands. Telemedicine providers will be able to see data provided in a symptom checker ahead of the visit, improve data completion in EHRs, and use health information to propose additional tests before the e-consultation, and be better prepared for dialogue with the patient.

Of course, telemedicine is not right for all patient cases. Some will always need to be seen in person or even in an ED. In those cases, however, symptom checkers will still provide the appropriate recommendation based on the patient’s presenting complaints.

Learn more about symptom checkers in telemedicine. Get in touch with our team.

Improving healthcare with symptom checkers cover


Improving healthcare with symptom checkers