Telehealth in a New Era: Beyond Convenience, Affordable Virtual Visits May Be the Key to Saving More Lives

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Doctor talking with a senior patient. Telemedicine concept

By Avihai Sodri is the CEO and Co-Founder of Antidote Health

Long before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognized the potential of telehealth in bridging the gap in affordable healthcare. In fact, the organization reported in 2019 that “People who live in rural areas of the United States are more likely than urban residents to die prematurely from five of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.” Telehealth, the report states, has the potential to serve as an effective tool for physician communication, counseling, and monitoring of a patient’s chronic illness such as lung or heart disease, which is why the CDC supports projects across America. Healthcare delivery via a computer or mobile device “can help reduce barriers to care for people who live far away from healthcare services and specialists, who have time or access restrictions, or who have transportation or mobility issues.”

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While telehealth had been slowly gaining attention in the decade between 2010 and 2019, COVID was inarguably the catalyst in its overnight explosion. Suddenly, with people forced to shutter in place, online visits became essential for many. By April 2020, the American Medical Association (AMA) reported in a webinar that the rise across the country was likely not a fluke but rather a sign that telehealth, if affordable, would become a permanent fixture in the $4.1 trillion U.S. healthcare system. 

Traditional healthcare in the U.S. is burdensome to most Americans. Half of all U.S. adults report having difficulty affording healthcare costs. This comes from a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), which states that Black, Hispanic and uninsured adults, as well as those with lower incomes, are disproportionally affected by high healthcare costs and far more likely to skip seeing a medical professional altogether. During the pandemic, however, a significant shift began to take place, as more people had access to telehealth services thanks to policy changes and emergency waivers approved by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and different states which reduced the barrier of entry for other states licensed physicians that could provide telehealth services after a fast approval process. To track the results of such changes, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study—Evaluating Disparities and Outcomes of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Emergency Act of 2020—sought to demonstrate the positive effects of telehealth and help make the CMS changes permanent. The results are nothing short of astounding. 

When it comes to other major conditions that can be managed successfully through telehealth, the benefits are proven. In a Harvard Business Review article published in the May-June 2022 issue, the authors make a case for telehealth using examples from two early adopters: Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Healthcare, both of whom used virtual care for more than ten years to improve chronic disease management and affordability—among other things—for more than 10 million patients. They demonstrated the efficacy of telehealth in reducing patient costs, unnecessary trips to urgent care or emergency rooms and gaps in access. 

Today’s telehealth platforms are evolving to provide affordable, premium health services enabling on-demand access and chronic care management from anywhere with little to no waiting time. Many experts believe it may become the great equalizer in healthcare, particularly when it comes to mental health. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 45,979 lives in 2020—a figure that is twice that of homicides. More providers recognize the need for a holistic approach to patient care that considers the mind and body, as well as quick access, which can be the difference between life and death. 

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution was drawn up in 1946, the organization has espoused “the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.” Governments—federal, state and local—do indeed have an obligation to ensure the highest standard of care for every citizen, with equal access and affordability based on income and cornerstones. Moving forward into the unknown of 2022, with the pandemic still in view, it is important to consider telehealth a permanent option in healthcare. Given the data that shows its myriad benefits, it is at least the first line of defense if not the critical bridge to all care—and care for all.

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