Archived: WMA Statement on the Ethics of Telemedicine
Adopted by the 58th WMA General Assembly, Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2007
amended by the 69th WMA General Assembly, Reykjavik, Iceland, October 2018
and rescinded and archived by the 73rd WMA General Assembly, Berlin, Germany, October 2022
Telemedicine is the practice of medicine over a distance, in which interventions, diagnoses, therapeutic decisions, and subsequent treatment recommendations are based on patient data, documents and other information transmitted through telecommunication systems.
Telemedicine can take place between a physician and a patient or between two or more physicians including other healthcare professionals.
- The development and implementation of information and communication technology are creating new and different ways for of practicing medicine. Telemedicine is used for patients who cannot see an appropriate physician timeously because of inaccessibility due to distance, physical disability, employment, family commitments (including caring for others), patients’ cost and physician schedules. It has capacity to reach patients with limited access to medical assistance and have potential to improve health care.
- Face-to-face consultation between physician and patient remains the gold standard of clinical care.
- The delivery of telemedicine services must be consistent with in-person services and supported by evidence.
- The principles of medical ethics that are mandatory for the profession must also be respected in the practice of telemedicine.
Physicians must respect the following ethical guidelines when practicing telemedicine:
1. The patient-physician relationship should be based on a personal examination and sufficient knowledge of the patient’s medical history. Telemedicine should be employed primarily in situations in which a physician cannot be physically present within a safe and acceptable time period. It could also be used in management of chronic conditions or follow-up after initial treatment where it has been proven to be safe and effective.
2. The patient-physician relationship must be based on mutual trust and respect. It is therefore essential that the physician and patient be able to identify each other reliably when telemedicine is employed. In case of consultation between two or more professionals within or between different jurisdictions, the primary physician remains responsible for the care and coordination of the patient with the distant medical team.
3. The physician must aim to ensure that patient confidentiality, privacy and data integrity are not compromised. Data obtained during a telemedicine consultation must be secured to prevent unauthorized access and breaches of identifiable patient information through appropriate and up to date security measures in accordance with local legislation. Electronic transmission of information must also be safeguarded against unauthorized access.
4. Proper informed consent requires that all necessary information regarding the distinctive features of telemedicine visit be explained fully to patients including, but not limited to:
- explaining how telemedicine works,
- how to schedule appointments,
- privacy concerns,
- the possibility of technological failure including confidentiality breaches,
- protocols for contact during virtual visits,
- prescribing policies and coordinating care with other health professionals in a clear and understandable manner, without influencing the patient’s choices.
5. Physicians must be aware that certain telemedicine technologies could be unaffordable to patients and hence impede access. Inequitable access to telemedicine can further widen the health outcomes gap between the poor and the rich.
Autonomy and privacy of the Physician
6. A physician should not to participate in telemedicine if it violates the legal or ethical framework of the country.
7. Telemedicine can potentially infringe on the physician privacy due to 24/7 virtual availability. The physician needs to inform patients about availability and recommend services such as emergency when inaccessible.
8. The physician should exercise their professional autonomy in deciding whether a telemedicine versus face-to-face consultation is appropriate.
9. A physician should exercise autonomy and discretion in selecting the telemedicine platform to be used.
Responsibilities of the Physician
10. A physician whose advice is sought through the use of telemedicine should keep a detailed record of the advice he/she delivers as well as the information he/she received and on which the advice was based in order to ensure traceability.
11. If a decision is made to use telemedicine it is necessary to ensure that the users (patients and healthcare professionals) are able to use the necessary telecommunication system.
12. The physician must seek to ensure that the patient has understood the advice and treatment suggestions given and take steps in so far as possible to promote continuity of care.
13. The physician asking for another physician’s advice or second opinion remains responsible for treatment and other decisions and recommendations given to the patient.
14. The physician should be aware of and respect the special difficulties and uncertainties that may arise when he/she is in contact with the patient through means of tele-communication. A physician must be prepared to recommend direct patient-doctor contact when he/she believes it is in the patient’s best interests.
15. Physicians should only practise telemedicine in countries/jurisdictions where they are licenced to practise. Cross-jurisdiction consultations should only be allowed between two physicians.
16. Physicians should ensure that their medical indemnity cover include cover for telemedicine.
Quality of Care
17. Healthcare quality assessment measures must be used regularly to ensure patient security and the best possible diagnostic and treatment practices during telemedicine procedures. The delivery of telemedicine services must follow evidence-based practice guidelines to the degree they are available, to ensure patient safety, quality of care and positive health outcomes. Like all health care interventions, telemedicine must be tested for its effectiveness, efficiency, safety, feasibility and cost-effectiveness.
18. The possibilities and weaknesses of telemedicine in emergencies must be duly identified. If it is necessary to use telemedicine in an emergency situation, the advice and treatment suggestions are influenced by the severity of the patient´s medical condition and the competency of the persons who are with the patient. Entities that deliver telemedicine services must establish protocols for referrals for emergency services.
- Telemedicine should be appropriately adapted to local regulatory frameworks, which may include licencing of telemedicine platforms in the best interest of patients.
- Where appropriate the WMA and National Medical Associations should encourage the development of ethical norms, practice guidelines, national legislation and international agreements on subjects related to the practice of telemedicine, while protecting the patient-physician relationship, confidentiality, and quality of medical care.
- Telemedicine should not be viewed as equal to face-to-face healthcare and should not be introduced solely to cut costs or as a perverse incentive to over-service and increase earnings for physicians.
- Use of telemedicine requires the profession to explicitly identify and manage adverse consequences on collegial relationships and referral patterns.
- New technologies and styles of practice integration may require new guidelines and standards.
- Physicians should lobby for ethical telemedicine practices that are in the best interests of patients.