Telehealth is here and empowering providers and patients to connect without in-office visits.Vice President of the American Medical Association’s digital innovation department, Meg Barron, reveals that telehealth visits have doubled since 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed telehealth forward with unprecedented speed.
Many healthcare providers are implementing telemedicine for the first time. Fear and regulations surrounding the coronavirus have driven patients to meet with pediatricians, general practitioners, specialists and therapists through technological means.
Medicare patients in particular have taken to virtual and phone healthcare appointments. In February 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services found that 0.1% of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth. By April 2020, that number had jumped to 43.5%.
Will there be consequences to the technology-medicine revolution that happened practically overnight? Will telemedicine stick around with such robust patient numbers, or will its use dwindle over time as the pandemic does?
Expert thoughts about what might happen with telemedicine post-pandemic are controversial.
If the healthcare industry can quickly adapt to new telemedicine practices, and optimize the way it is used, all signs point to a bright future for telehealth. Patients are communicating with HIPAA Compliant Texting applications that are now widespread based on their providers.
· 57% of providers view telehealth more favorably than before COVID-19
· 64% report that they are more comfortable with using telehealth now than they were before the pandemic
That being said, even if telemedicine continues to thrive as COVID-19 becomes more controlled, it will face plenty of hurdles. Providers and experts will be experimenting with “the new normal” in healthcare, which may mean inconsistency for both patients and doctors for months or years.
With more than 80 new telehealth services being introduced to Medicare & Medicaid, consumers are likely becoming partial to e-visits at this time. By the time social distancing is relaxed, doctors and patients will be accustomed to the new way of doing things, and some of them will prefer it.
Another hopeful sign: Several telehealth companies plan to go public and are exploring sales, according to The Wall Street Journal. The global telehealth market is projected to grow from $25.4 billion this year to $55.6 billion by 2025.
Healthcare professionals all see the advantages of telemedicine, and why it might remain available post-pandemic.
The benefits of telemedicine include:
Safer long-term care
Individuals with long-term health needs are often vulnerable members of the population. These patients now have more access to care management with lesser physical exposure. Populations with various ailments can now receive regular maintenance without risking further injury or illness by traveling to their doctor’s office.
Better patient accessibility and outcomes
Many patients who are unable or unwilling to visit a doctor in-person are meeting with professionals virtually. Doctors are able to monitor and help patients who may have not received adequate care in the past. Telemedicine saves time. It feels more anonymous. It seems easy and available. In these first meetings, healthcare professionals can build relationships with patients and perhaps persuade them to be seen in-person in the future.
Greater efficiency and accessibility to save money
Telemedicine could potentially decrease emergency room visits and health care office visits, allowing more outpatient volume to be shifted to home-virtual settings. Telemedicine has the capacity to reduce patient and hospital costs.
Such a sudden change has left doctors questioning: Will telemedicine work in terms of consistent payment, liability and workflow? The answers will be revealed slowly over time.
Laws were changed all over the country to accommodate COVID-19. Doctors were paid in-person rates for visiting with Medicare and Medicaid patients via internet or phone. Geographic and site-of-service restrictions were lifted temporarily so that patients across the US could receive care.
Telehealth was critical throughout the pandemic, but it is up to Congress to decide whether its changes will become permanent.
In addition, insurers would have to be convinced that they should keep paying for telemedicine. If doctors cannot offer more than the bare minimum through telemedicine, insurance companies would have little to gain from funding telehealth.
Some insurance companies are making telemedicine coverage permanent, but no companies have determined exactly how much coverage they will offer long-term.
There are a few disadvantages to telemedicine which make its future appear uncertain.
· Fear of the unknown: No one knows for sure how telemedicine will affect physicians, patients, or the economy over the years.
· Necessary governmental approval: Lawmakers are reluctant to pass any legislation that would significantly increase Medicare’s or Medicaid’s budget, including telehealth.
· In-person is still essential: In-person visits will never disappear. People miss seeing their doctors in-person, and many ailments can only be treated in an office. What place does telemedicine have in healthcare?
· Potential loss of personalization: Speaking of in-person care, the accuracy of telehealth may be significantly substandard to true doctor visits. Body language and emotion are more evident in person, and more importantly, physicians can get a much better look at those bumps, tonsils or infections in-person.
The future of telehealth is uncertain, and is largely in the hands of Congress and insurance providers. There are countless questions about long-term effects of telehealth.
However, the weighty advantages of telehealth are apparent. Vulnerable populations needing long-term care can have more regular access to their providers with less exposure. More people are receiving care and attention that they always needed, but never reached out for before.
Telehealth brings a new level of convenience and efficiency to the table. We are hopeful that the progress made during COVID-19 is stable enough to stick.