Just as many of us began working from home at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of people also nixed in-person doctors’ appointments in favor of telehealth consultations with their physicians. While virtual care was originally conceived as a low-cost means to avoid expensive emergency room or urgent care visits for basic ailments such as colds, flu, and rashes, during the COVID-19 shutdown, doctors began using telehealth to see patients remotely for a variety of conditions.
The demand for virtual healthcare started to increase in 2020 and continues to skyrocket; there was a huge 4,347 percent increase in the demand for telehealth services last year, and a study by the consulting firm McKinsey states that the market could reach $250 billion. Just like remote working, telehealth is here to stay, and healthcare providers, patients, legislators, and payers must decide how to best optimize its use.
According to the McKinsey study, in April 2020 the overall use of telehealth for office visits and outpatient care was 78 times higher than in February 2020. Physicians continue to see telehealth in a more positive light than they did before the pandemic; in April 2021, 84 percent of doctors were offering virtual visits, and 57 percent said they would prefer to continue offering remote care. Additionally, approximately 40 percent of surveyed consumers said they plan to continue to use telehealth going forward, up from just 11 percent of consumers using telehealth before COVID-19.
Meg Barron, vice president of digital innovation for the American Medical Association (AMA), also reported that telehealth visits and remote patient monitoring have doubled in the past few years, and use rose dramatically at the start of the pandemic. As she put it, “More physicians than ever have recognized digital health tools as an advantage for driving efficiency and safety in healthcare.”
State and federal regulation have also continued to evolve since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every state took action to expand telehealth via gubernatorial executive orders, insurance regulations and directives, and Medicaid bulletins. The AMA is working closely with state medical associations countrywide, as well as with influential state policy organizations like the National Governors Association and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
New policies designed to pay for telehealth services regardless of patients’ locations have led to a considerable uptick in virtual visits as employers and employees are more than willing to engage in telehealth solutions. Now, most employers offer telehealth for minor and acute services as well as mental health issues and other concerns including weight management, diabetes care, dermatology, prenatal care, and more. For those living in rural areas, seniors, low-income, and high-risk individuals—often groups that have chronic health conditions-–telehealth will continue to be a literal lifesaver.
Older Americans residing in care facilities frequently found themselves isolated and unable to make doctor’s appointments to maintain their health and treat chronic illness during the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, however, New York-based Allure Group—which maintains six skilled nursing facilities across Brooklyn and Manhattan—relied on telehealth technology to provide 24/7 physician-led medical care to its residents via virtual care. Telehealth physicians guide the centers’ staffs through examinations, virtual stethoscopes, and other tools to provide diagnoses, preventing unnecessary ambulance rides, emergency room visits, and extra expenses. Allure’s Vis A Vis health remote-care technology allows recently discharged patients to see clinicians via video in the comfort of their own homes.
Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report showing strong utilization of telehealth service for primary care delivery in Fee-for-Service (FFS) Medicare in the early days of the pandemic. The report also provided insight into the ways that telehealth will continue to supplement care. More recently, the Biden Administration has invested more than $19 million to strengthen telehealth services in rural and underserved communities. This funding expands innovation in telehealth, including funds for incubators to develop new services, track outcomes, and publish research that will establish an evidence base for future telehealth programs. In addition, the American Medical Association is supporting legislative proposals in Congress calling for the permanent lifting of geographic and site-of-service restrictions that would allow telehealth services to be delivered across the country and in patients’ homes.
During the worst of the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reimbursed telehealth services more flexibly than before the coronavirus struck, and this is expected to continue. Medicare is also likely to continue to offer telehealth within risk-based payment models to ensure that both virtual healthcare and alternative payment methods continue to grow. According to a report issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in 2020, state Medicaid programs will need to increase their oversight of these services to ensure that telehealth flexible options become permanent.
Miles Romney, co-founder and chief technology officer at the telehealth company eVisit, spoke with Healthcare IT News about his vision of virtual health in the future. Romney believes that because people now have more of a choice of where to go for healthcare, they demand not only successful outcomes but also high-quality experiences and better interactions between patients and healthcare providers.
As Romney said:
“The future is bright. The innovators in health technology are creating it. And with democratized healthcare, with equal access to life and health, the sky’s the limit. No, even the sky will be no limit.”
The bottom line is that telehealth has served a critical purpose during the pandemic, and that is not about to change in the years ahead.
Joel Landau, is founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a network of six New York City-based nursing homes.