Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, most U.S. healthcare systems were compelled to swiftly shift to virtual care in order to accommodate patients. However, now that most facilities have opened to the public, the focus has mainly switched back to in-person treatment.
This means health systems are now faced with the task of further developing and integrating effective, accessible, and sustainable virtual care technologies into their larger model in ways that benefit both their organizations and the communities they serve.
Only a few U.S. healthcare systems have fully adopted virtual care by the start of 2020. In general, the incentives to employ these technologies were not strong enough to overcome significant hurdles of implementation. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in the following March, most healthcare institutions immediately shifted to virtual care to retain access to treatment, protect patients, maintain workforces, and maintain income. Within weeks, most systems were delivering more virtual care in a single day than they had in the previous year, including video and phone calls, as well as chatting with clinicians and chatbots.
According to David Bynon, “Telehealth saw a rapid rise in usage during the COVID-19 epidemic, both among Medicare beneficiaries and privately insured patients. Previously, Original Medicare coverage for telehealth services was restricted to rural beneficiaries. When the federal government declared a national emergency, in response to COVID-19, Congress and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded coverage for Telehealth to make to reduce their exposure to the virus in healthcare settings. If policymakers don’t take action, Medicare’s coverage for telehealth services will return to the limited availability it had before the pandemic.” Bynon operates MedicareWire.com , a private Medicare consulting agency.
The biggest challenge healthcare facilities need to face now is finding proper balance between in-person and telehealth consultations. Why should hospitals and other healthcare systems do this? Because telehealth can bring a series of benefits to both the patients and the providers, not only during a global pandemic but beyond it as well.
Receiving routine care in a more convenient way
Even before the pandemic, there has been an increasing shortage of physicians across the country. This issue, combined with the fact that many patients postpone doctor appointments due to hectic schedules or lack of convenience (the hospital is too far, commuting is limited), leads to individuals neglecting routine medical care, often until the condition starts affecting their everyday life.
During the pandemic, however, when telehealth was made more accessible to patients from all backgrounds, there was an increased interest in receiving routine care, which was now available at the cost of pressing the dial button.
If Telehealth develops into a pillar of healthcare, as it proves it can be, medical services will become more convenient for both patients and doctors.
Telehealth has the potential to reduce virus spread, as patients don’t need to come into the doctor’s office for every small issue. What’s more, integrated e-triage solutions enable patients to receive the care they need fast, convenient, and in a less expensive manner.
Virtual-first healthcare plans could become more available for the people who really need it, making things even more convenient. Not only will patients be able to talk with a virtual healthcare provider before deciding if they should pursue traditional care as well, but these premiums are much more inexpensive and have become popular among business organizations and brokers.
Lower costs for patients
The cost of healthcare is often an issue for many people who struggle to get proper insurance or cover the expenses of medical care when necessary. Not to mention that many patients in rural areas need to commute for long hours to reach the nearest medical facility. During the pandemic, when Telehealth was made available for more people, over 1 in 4 Medicare beneficiaries had at least one telehealth visit in the summer-fall period of 2020.
The doctor visits the patient by phone or other digital devices during a telehealth appointment. Consider how much travel, parking, childcare, and time away from work may add up. The extra effort required to drive to a distant doctor’s facility might be frustrating, but the fees can quickly mount up. Patients in some rural areas must travel overnight to see specialists in larger metropolitan areas.
By adopting a telemedicine service, Oregon Health and Science University saved its patients $6.4 million in travel expenditures per year. According to a UPMC patient study, 40% of patients stated they would miss a visit if they didn’t have access to a virtual appointment.
Improving patient access to specialty care
In the United States, 56% of counties don’t have a psychiatrist, and 64% of them have a significant shortage of mental health providers. Situations like this are more common than they should be, not only in mental and psychiatric care, but also when it comes to other branches of specialty care.
By expanding access to specialty care, not only will patients be able to get the help they need, but this type of access can serve as a great way for the healthcare system to expand partnerships with communities, payers, and insurance providers. Some organizations even took it one step further and provided toolkits that help healthcare providers expand their telehealth capabilities, as well as coverage policies
This kind of improvement is especially needed in rural areas, where access to many healthcare specialties is scarce. During the pandemic, Telehealth became a true lifeline for these areas. By talking with a doctor over the phone or through video and getting fast access to a specialists’ input, the quality of care will be greatly improved, and we may even be able to save people’s lives.
Better care models for patients with chronic conditions
Patients with chronic conditions need constant monitoring and periodic visits to the doctor to document the evolution of their condition. This is often difficult to accomplish, especially in areas where specialty care is scarce.
Through remote monitoring and digital visits to the doctors, virtual health can be easily incorporated into chronic condition treatments and improve patient outcomes. What’s more, during a public health emergency, audio-only telehealth services have been found to be beneficial for the Medicare population, as many patients may not have access to or feel comfortable using visual technology. Over 3 million people have benefited from telehealth services delivered over the phone. That indicates that roughly a third of those who got telemedicine services did so through an audio-only phone line.