By: Justin Holmes
As the US passes 124 million coronavirus vaccine shots administered, a return to normality seems just on the horizon. But while empty arenas and outdoor-only-dining may become relics of a socially distanced past, the emergence of telehealth—technologically supported long distance healthcare—is here to stay.
Before the pandemic, telehealth had already been steadily growing in popularity. The percentage of hospitals at least partially implementing a computerized telehealth system more than doubled from 35% in 2010 to 76% in 2017. Telehealth was seen as an effective method to overcome geographic, transportation, patient mobility, and funding related barriers.
When state mandated, stay-at-home orders emerged in March 2020, telehealth exploded as a safe alternative to in-person care. According to a report from the CDC, telehealth visits increased by 154% during late March 2020 over the same week in 2019. Telehealth usage remained sky-high throughout the pandemic with telehealth insurance claims rising from 0.2% of all claims in Oct. 2019 to 5.6% in Oct. 2020. In Aug. 2020, Tennessee lawmakers even passed HB 8002, which expanded telehealth coverage by requiring payers to cover telehealth as they would cover in-person services until at least April 2022.
Throughout the pandemic, telehealth proved its popularity with patients. In a survey, 51% of respondents indicated they preferred to continue using telehealth after the pandemic for its convenience. The effectiveness of telehealth, however, is much more complicated. Researchers are currently studying the potential trade-offs between the benefits of expanding healthcare coverage to more people through telehealth, and a decrease in the average quality of care as a result of the nature of an out-patient experience. Telehealth checkups don’t have access to diagnostic testing or even the same quality of visual analysis as in-person.
Telehealth has been particularly popular for mental health related consultations. According to the athenahealth dashboard data, 33% of mental health consultations were done virtually. A visit with a psychiatrist naturally fits into the structure of a telehealth visit because it is mostly just talking and not as reliant on in-person tests or procedures. A myriad of teletherapy companies have emerged in popularity, with some planning IPOs. Other popular telehealth companies have focused on men’s health issues and more general healthcare.
With the emergence of telehealth, healthcare providers must be careful not to leave vulnerable populations behind. People with learning disabilities, people with poor technological literacy, people who don’t have access to quality internet, and communities already wary of healthcare providers due to historical injustices could all be left behind if healthcare providers don’t set clear telehealth standards that ensure equity is not forgotten.
Forced into the mainstream by a global pandemic, telehealth is here to stay. A McKinsey report indicated that virtual health visits will continue to rise even after the pandemic goes away. In the fierce competition of the telehealth startup market, some will find success, but most will fail. Ultimately, the healthcare industry will have to find a way to make telehealth as efficient, effective, and accessible as possible—and that could be their hardest challenge yet.