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Telehealth, the Provision of Remote Healthcare

Telehealth is useful, but is it here to stay?

Maybe we really don’t want to talk about it, but truth is, major calamities like the COVID-19 pandemic often lead to innovations in healthcare.  

As a prime example, the use of virtual care skyrocketed as people – asked to socially distance – looked for substitutes for in-person visits. The frequency and popularity of virtual care helped demonstrate the value of safe, top-notch and accessible care provided through telehealth. It also proved that millions of people want it. But will telehealth stay around post-COVID-19?

When COVID-19 hit, 41 percent of U.S. adults postponed or simply stopped looking for in-person medical care. One reason, of course, was the temporary or permanent shutting down of medical practices due to the pandemic. Another frequent justification by patients was the fear of exposure to the coronavirus from an in-person visit. Others underwent a delay in treatment after being turned away at hospitals owing to a shortage of open beds, inadequate resources or an ever-dwindling workforce.

By making the best use of technology, telehealth was able to help solve this disparity between healthcare delivery and accessibility. In addition to delivering contactless care, virtual care health providers could “visit” a higher number of patients than in-person providers and frequently worked outside traditional clinic hours. Given that more than 50 percent of U.S. adults have struggled to obtain healthcare services at night or weekends without turning to pricey emergency rooms, the advantages of virtual visits were sizable. Telehealth patients don’t get turned away due to lack of space or resources, either.

Now that patients were aware they could obtain top-notch care without ever leaving their homes, it proved less tempting to go back to the good old days of crammed waiting rooms and hurried-up appointments.

But will telehealth remain popular post-COVID-19? Will the government and commercial payers continue to reimburse for telemedicine? Will there be technological advances that will push the patient care model more forward? And what about the future of remote patient monitoring?

Let’s first see how physicians and patients feel about the future of telehealth.

Physicians’ responses to a recent nationwide poll:

  • 85 percent signaled that telehealth boosted the timeliness of care.
  • 75 percent said telehealth let them provide high-quality care.
  • In excess of 70 percent were motivated to expand the use of telehealth.

The last statistic was especially uplifting for Meg Barron, the AMA’s vice president of digital health innovations. “Telehealth is here to stay,’ she said. “It’s not whether telehealth will be offered, but how best to offer telehealth services as we move toward what we’re terming digitally enabled care – which is not just hybrid care, but more so fully integrated in-person and virtual care based on clinical appropriateness.”

Physicians were not the only ones who responded positively to the use of telehealth. Patients also found added value in having a digital opportunity to connect and interact with their healthcare team.

“We know that both patients and physicians want telehealth to continue,’ Barron said, “and also that they want the option and convenience and access of that virtual care modality to stay in place, in addition to in-person care.”

Healthcare IT News sat down with Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Included Health, a telehealth technology and services company, to get his read on the future of telehealth.

Q: What do you see in the realm of technological advances in telemedicine?

A: Whether it’s behavioral, acute or chronic care, the most significant role that technology will play is allowing physicians to have the identical window into a patient’s medical history and care plan so they can offer integrated care.

One other thing. The technology for virtual-care appointments will last beyond 1:1 doctor-patient conferencing. For example, in a reaction to the continuing shortage of behavioral health providers, we can expect to witness technology that can sustain group sessions wherein several patients receive counsel and support simultaneously.

Q: What do you anticipate taking place regarding reimbursement for virtual care in 2022? Will it become permanent? Will it grow?

A: With usage rates 38 times higher than pre-pandemic, and the unarguable significance for those who need it most – seniors and the immunocompromised who can’t afford in-person exposure—I believe government will and ought to expand virtual care access.

Today, the real value of virtual care is for consistent chronic disease management or continuing behavioral health therapy, where people need not be concerned about the constant travel in and out of doctors’ offices.

Q: What do you see happening with remote patient monitoring?

A: The employment of remote patient monitoring devices continues to grow, and we don’t see a slowing down any time soon.

Today, one third of consumers are more apt to choose a provider that lets them share data for a connected health device, which simply fosters more positive outcomes. The more real-time data that we can collect in the comfort of people’s homes, the more personalized virtual care we can provide.

However, to truly unleash widespread adoption of this capability, the costs of these devices need to drop. As costs decline, healthcare plans can more readily find an ROI to support the use of these devices.

Post-COVID Telehealth

Living in the midst of the pandemic has demonstrated that healthcare – and more accurately, telehealth – can be significantly better when it’s constructed with patients’ needs in mind. As we celebrate our hybrid work models and the ease and safety that arises from digital health visits, it’s critical that we all keep up the momentum.

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