Analysis: the pandemic has seen a massive growth in telehealth services, which allow medical staff to remotely screen and monitor patients

In recent years, virtual forms of communication have exploded in to our daily lives. We're hosting international business meetings from the comfort of our own homes. Video assistant referees (VAR) are changing how decisions are made in the sports we watch. Irish families on opposite sides of the globe are in each other’s lives on a daily basis through phone and computer screens.

It’s therefore no surprise that Irish healthcare was going to harness the power of virtual communication in the near future. All it needed was a trigger, and that came in the form of Covid-19.

Since last March, telehealth has become a buzz word in Ireland, but getting your healthcare at a distance is not a new idea. Australia and Canada have been using it for years as it enables their healthcare professionals to cover vast geographical areas. It has also been used by clinicians in developed countries to remotely screen and monitor patients in the developing world.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Carole Coleman reports on how the pandemic has increased the use of telemedicine

Telehealth is great news for children’s services. Children should be outside in the fresh air, playing and making friends, not stuck commuting in traffic and sitting in waiting rooms for routine appointments. With no travel costs and minimal disruption to the child, imagine the difference it would make to families of children with additional needs.

Of course, there will be some challenges. Low income families may not have access to computers and internet connections. Those with low levels of literacy skills will also need to be well supported to benefit from online resources. The last thing we need is to further increase social inequities by developing a digital divide.

But, with so many advantages, there is a growing body of research to support telehealth being mainstreamed. In the last five years alone, the research in this area has nearly doubled, showing the potential of web-based therapy services for children. Research has included children with social challenges such as autistic spectrum disorder; movement difficulties such as developmental coordination disorder and cerebral palsy; and mental health challenges such as anxiety, to name a few.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in 2015, is telemedicine a good idea?

Online programmes to train and coach parents are developing rapidly. These include virtual modules that focus on positive parenting skills, or teach parents techniques that they can then use to improve their children skills. There have been promising results, with parents reporting reduced stress levels and feeling more competent in supporting their children’s needs.

Programmes are also proving to be a useful way to improve children’s behaviours including challenging and disruptive behaviours. Although programmes that focus on children’s movement skills have also shown some improvements, the results are not as good as programmes that focus on children’s behaviour.

In the next few years we are going to see more online programmes for children. Overall, this is good news. Not only should this increase our access to the best of our national services, but they will also give us access to the best interventions worldwide. Parents will be offered everything from free information, fee-paying audio-visual assessments, and interventions and training by monthly subscriptions.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, a discussion on how Covid-19 has impacted on the future of healthcare in Ireland

Before signing yourself or your child up to any online programme, here are a few things to consider:

(1) Reliability

Make sure any programme you sign up for is coming from a reliable source. Be sceptical about ‘miracle cures’. Professionals that are running a programme will be invested in it which makes them biased. Try to find some independent views on the programme from other healthcare professionals, or reputable online sources

(2) Will this work for your child?

Check if the programme works for your child’s specific strengths and challenges. For example, some therapy programmes have only been proved useful for children with specific diagnoses.

(3) Choice and flexibility

Choose an online programme that gives lots of choice and flexibility. Check if ‘real-time’ sessions will be recorded so that if you miss one you can watch it in your own time.

(4) Make the time

Plan to do the online training at a time that you can really dedicate yourself (and your child) to it. If it doesn’t have an impact, you don’t want to start thinking it’s because you didn’t follow through with your side of it.

(5) What exactly are you after?

Be clear on what type of intervention you are looking for. The main types are exercise programmes (that are led by parents), real-time interventions (with a therapist) and basic sharing of information. In most cases,  parents have access to online modules and resources. The most interactive programmes, with videos and lots of input from the therapists, have shown the best outcomes. Families also do better when they are coached rather than just provided with information.

(6) One at a time

Only sign up to one programme at a time. Write clear goals that are realistic for you and your child. Once the programme finishes, review them to see what gains you and your child have truly made.

(7) Tech know-how

In the absence of any technical support, connection issues can be frustrating. You will need to have a phone, tablet or computer with a reliable mic and camera. You will also need a reasonable internet connection. If you are not tech-savvy, get support from a neighbour or family member to set up and check out the links to the software well in advance of your first session.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ