Diagnostic Concordance of Telemedicine as Compared With Face-to-Face Care in Primary Health Care Clinics in Rural India: Randomized Crossover Trial

JMIR Form Res. 2023 Jun 23:7:e42775. doi: 10.2196/42775.


Background: With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase and scaling up of provider-to-provider telemedicine programs that connect frontline health providers such as nurses and community health workers at primary care clinics with remote doctors at tertiary facilities to facilitate consultations for rural patients. Considering this new trend of increasing use of telemedicine, this study was conducted to generate evidence for patients, health providers, and policymakers to compare if provider-to-provider telemedicine-based care is equivalent to in-person care and is safe and acceptable in terms of diagnostic and treatment standards.

Objective: This study aims to compare the diagnosis and treatment decisions from teleconsultations to those of in-person care in teleclinics in rural Gujarat.

Methods: We conducted a diagnostic concordance study using a randomized crossover study design with 104 patients at 10 telemedicine primary care clinics. Patients reporting to 10 telemedicine primary care clinics were randomly assigned to first receive an in-person doctor consultation (59/104, 56.7%) or to first receive a health worker-assisted telemedicine consultation (45/104, 43.3%). The 2 groups were then switched, with the first group undergoing a telemedicine consultation following the in-person consultation and the second group receiving an in-person consultation after the teleconsultation. The in-person doctor and remote doctor were blinded to the diagnosis and management plan of the other. The diagnosis and treatment plan of in-person doctors was considered the gold standard.

Results: We enrolled 104 patients reporting a range of primary health care issues into the study. We observed 74% (77/104) diagnostic concordance and 79.8% (83/104) concordance in the treatment plan between the in-person and remote doctors. No significant association was found between the diagnostic and treatment concordance and the order of the consultation (P=.65 and P=.81, respectively), the frontline health worker-doctor pair (both P=.93), the gender of the patient (both P>.99), or the mode of teleconsultation (synchronous vs asynchronous; P=.32 and P=.29, respectively), as evaluated using Fisher exact tests. A significant association was seen between the diagnostic and treatment concordance and the type of case (P=.004 and P=.03, respectively). The highest diagnostic concordance was seen in the management of hypertension (20/21, 95% concordance; Cohen kappa=0.93) and diabetes (14/15, 93% concordance; Cohen kappa=0.89). The lowest values were seen in cardiology (1/3, 33%) and patients presenting with nonspecific symptoms (3/10, 30%). The use of a digital assistant to facilitate the consultation resulted in increased adherence to evidence-based care protocols.

Conclusions: The findings reflect that telemedicine can be a safe and acceptable alternative mode of care especially in remote rural settings when in-person care is not accessible. Telemedicine has advantages. for the potential gains for improved health care-seeking behavior for patients, reduced costs for the patient, and improved health system efficiency by reducing overcrowding at tertiary health facilities.

Keywords: COVID-19; diagnostic concordance; digital assistant; eHealth; opensource; patient care; primary care; rural health; teleconsultation; telehealth; telemedicine.