The emergence of online platforms for healthcare has been growing in popularity over the past decade. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing, telehealth is more useful than ever.
Online question and answer (Q&A) forums where patients can directly raise their questions or concerns to their doctors are one of the most efficient methods of telehealth. These forums are beneficial for many common medical issues that can be solved simply from a doctor’s response, rather than an in-person visit.
Subodha Kumar, Paul R. Anderson Distinguished Professor and Chair Professor of the Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at the Fox School of Business, has been researching and examining these online forums. He says that the U.S. has much to learn from the rest of the world.
“We have seen a big boom in the U.S. for Q&A forums in healthcare but these forums have already been popular in other countries,” says Kumar. “In countries like China and India, there is a huge gap between healthcare in rural and urban settings. The big cause for the emergence of these (telehealth) platforms was to solve inefficiency in the system.”
Kumar’s paper, titled “When a Doctor Knows, It Shows: An Empirical Analysis of Doctors’ Responses in Q&A Forum of an Online Healthcare Portal,” published in the journal Information Systems Research last year, looks through the origin, application and benefits of these online forums.
When healthcare Q&As first emerged, experts at the time were worried about patients being too hesitant to use a new platform for patient care. Altering the healthcare experience from an in-person visit to just a few questions through a computer was a significant change.
“What we are seeing long-term is that hesitancy is gone. People have done it and they are comfortable with it now. It’s actually more convenient,” relays Kumar, explaining the rising number of patients on these forums.
These platforms also give patients the chance to provide feedback back to the doctors, a chance they wouldn’t typically have in the traditional healthcare system. They are now able to provide their anonymous views and opinions, which Kumar says “can help improve the healthcare system in general.”
He also describes that the growing popularity of a medical Q&A platform is linked to two main reasons: supply and demand, as well as a convenience factor.
“The long-term effect is that people are finding it is cost-effective and more efficient. It all comes down to supply and demand. The demand was much higher but now these forums are providing a balance. There’s no need to have the physical aspect to a lot of doctor’s appointments,” explains Kumar. “We will see a huge jump in telemedicine and online platforms after the pandemic, too.”
Patients who may not have access to typical standards of healthcare can benefit from this trend. But how is this new system helping healthcare workers behind the scenes?
“For doctors, now they can see a lot more patients and patients from different areas,” explains Kumar. “The Q&A feature works very well in certain types of medicine to give doctors more clients. More experienced doctors tend to get much more of the benefits than less experienced doctors.”
These forums give doctors an opportunity to see more patients throughout the day, but it also puts the pressure on them performing well in their response. When a doctor answers a patient’s question on a Q&A portal, their expertise is showcased. This contributes to doctors diligently answering questions online, as there is clear positive reinforcement for the healthcare workers who know what they’re talking about.
“If we look at the big picture, systems like eBay are simply connecting the buyers and sellers. It is the same for these online healthcare platforms. They are connecting people,” says Kumar.
The online connection between patients and doctors is proving to be more efficient and cost-effective long-term, as well as beneficial for both the doctor and patient. As people are encouraged to reduce social interaction, this form of telehealth has a promising future to play a much bigger role in healthcare as a whole.