The concept of telemedicine in Spain is by no means new. However, in recent years this word has acquired, if possible, even more popularity than it already had, forever transforming the way in which citizens request and access medical care globally. Nowadays, more and more people make use of this apparently revolutionary and innovative word, but the truth is that the concept of telemedicine has its roots in the last century.
That telemedicine in Spain has come to stay is a reality, but when did new technologies begin to be implemented in the health sector? What is the role of these in the current Spanish health system? How can we visualize a future led by telemedicine in Spain?
The beginnings of telemedicine in Spain
Although, as we said, telemedicine is today more present than ever in almost all health systems, in reality it is a concept that has been in the making for more than a hundred years. It began to gain strength during the 1970s with the development of technologies (computers, internet, mobile devices…), manifesting itself as a very effective new tool when it comes to overcoming geographical barriers and allowing the inhabitants of rural areas and /or people living in developing countries to access health systems more quickly.
Already in the year 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) began to coin the concept of telemedicine with greater precision and firmness, referring to it as «the use of communication and information technologies to improve health care for dispersed and remote populations. With the advancement of electronic, computer and communication technology, large investments have been made in the telecommunications sector, and the health sector is being reformed and modernized, aiming at greater equity in the provision of services, greater concern for effectiveness and usefulness of activities in the field of health and rationalization of spending.»¹
Despite the fact that it was a really accurate description and that it allowed a glimpse of the main missions of telemedicine -even at a time when «the culture of over-information and immediacy» did not yet prevail in the world-, the concept remained unnoticed among the majority of citizens for almost a decade.
Telemedicine in Spain today
It was not until 2015 that, driven by two laws and by the Digital Transformation Plan of the General State Administration and its Public Bodies (ICT Strategy 2015-2020), a new scenario appeared where electronic processing would begin to be the priority mode of action by the Administrations in their relationship with citizens, as well as in the relationship between the different administrations², within which access to the National Health System was undoubtedly found.
Although, once again, it was a very strategically configured initiative whose intention was to modernize and streamline the processes through which Spanish citizens would make use of health services from then on, five years had to pass before the circumstances they encouraged us (and even forced us) to cling to it.
The covid-19 and the era of the digital revolution
In the year 2020, Covid-19 broke out with force and millions of people around the world had to stop their frenetic rhythms of life, confining themselves to their homes and limiting social contact to the maximum. In a context in which health – the most precious asset that people have – began to falter at a global level, medical care continued to be an essential resource, a service that we all – although some more than others – still needed access to.
And it was precisely driven by the pandemic that the use of telemedicine in Spain de facto began to consolidate. According to a survey carried out by the Capterra platform³, 62 percent of Spanish patients state that in 2020 they used a teleconsultation system in some way. A fact that makes it clear that the triggering factor for this new way of relating and interacting was the health crisis caused by COVID is, once again, another figure from this survey, from which it can be deduced that 92% of those surveyed who used a telemedicine platform during 2020 did so for the first time.
From this data we can deduce, in effect, these were times of radical transformation for the health sector, both in the public and private spheres. In this sense, health insurers were placed in a privileged situation, since the vast majority offered remote care services in some way, such as, for example, through the telephone or applications that allowed them to carry out autonomously the most bureaucratic procedures, such as making appointments or requesting authorizations.
However –and especially in the year 2022–, when we have finally begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel and, apparently, the health restrictions have been practically eliminated, the pandemic has left us with the uncertainty of what the medical care of the future and what will be the real role of telemedicine in this new scenario.
Telemedicine: a look into the future
For the last two years, it is an indisputable fact that telemedicine is at a peak and the data reflects that it is most likely that it will continue in the near future with the same trend.
However, most experts are committed to a hybrid future in which citizens can make the most of the advantages that telehealth puts within our reach (for example, decongesting the health system; reducing costs, travel and waiting; the reduction of unnecessary visits; the possibility of discerning between cases that require urgent medical attention and those that do not; the use of medicine in a more proactive and preventive way by the patient…) without having to give up to go to the doctor in person in those cases in which it is necessary.
New technologies are our allies and the concepts of ‘medical’ and ‘telehealth’ should not be at odds in any way, but instead walk hand in hand and synergistically towards a future in which medical care, regardless of the format in which is manifested, is increasingly optimized and is truly universal and accessible to all.