Like the rest of the economy, healthcare has been upended by the coronavirus. Not just emergency rooms, but primary care physicians, specialists, and long-term care facilities, too.
Struggling to continue providing care in a time of social distancing, many have turned to telehealth in record numbers. Even providers who may have previously viewed telehealth skeptically – perhaps because of the technology’s perceived complexity or reimbursement challenges before COVID-19 – have now become some of its biggest champions.
The sheer speed of this transformative shift is unprecedented in the healthcare industry. This extreme growth has been fueled by two factors: relaxed rules around enforcement and reimbursement, and demand from patients and healthcare providers. Prior to COVID, reimbursements for telehealth were focused on rural or underserved areas. Likewise, regional inconsistencies and varying rules for reimbursement by individual insurers limited its adoption. Not only were regulations relaxed around technology and reimbursements once COVID hit, however, but providers saw an urgent need to connect with their patients in a safe and effective way, and doing so was their primary concern – regardless of what happened on the regulatory front.
But like many cloud-based technologies that allow remote work during the crisis, telehealth has rocketed into the mainstream with significant implications for the healthcare market post-COVID.
With the door now pushed wide open, there is significant potential for expansion of telehealth throughout the industry — and as demand continues to surge, several sectors of healthcare, in particular, will see the most impact.
Small to Mid-Sized Practices
Independent physician practices, particularly in primary care or other generalist specialties, have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. These small to mid-sized businesses are seeing in-person patient visits canceled due to social distancing precautions.
Even as certain states or municipalities reopen their economies, this challenge is likely to continue through the end of the year. Thus, in the short-term, telehealth and virtual care solutions are a lifeline to these physician practices’ financial viability. They allow physicians and staff to continue billing for services while strengthening relationships with patients who value the counsel and medical advice of their own trusted doctors.
Over the long term, virtual health technologies will drive higher physician and patient satisfaction, greater internal efficiencies, and better care quality for these practices – all leading to an overall improved patient experience. Widespread adoption may also result in telehealth being used more broadly to address the nation’s rural physician shortage by extending the digital reach of practices to anyone with a smartphone.
Behavioral Health and Long-Term Care
Like physician practices, specialists in behavioral health have been slow to adopt virtual health solutions in the past, but that’s now changing.
With nearly 44 million Americans experiencing mental illness in a given year but only 40% of adults receiving treatment – due to factors like specialist shortages and ongoing social stigmas – virtual health is primed to carve out a greater share of the behavioral health market following the pandemic. From the privacy and comfort of their own home, those dealing with anxiety, depression, or eating disorders, for example, can receive support and treatment without fear or judgment.
Likewise, a growing number of seniors and those in long-term care settings prefer to receive treatment from home instead of a facility, creating a need for low-cost alternatives as the population ages. Using telehealth and virtual care technology, long-term care providers are poised to meet this demand for home care during the crisis – protecting vulnerable elderly ones most at-risk from COVID-19 – while positioning themselves for the future.
Why Telehealth is Now a Must Have
Telehealth has rocketed into the public’s consciousness, and it will continue to evolve and become more ingrained in our healthcare system even after the pandemic subsides. As patients become accustomed to the flexibility and convenience of telehealth, and providers are able to accommodate more patients and push for fewer regulatory restrictions, it will become mainstream. Several trends will drive this long-term.
Traditional services that are complemented by telehealth meet changing patient expectations, as well as significantly lower costs and expand access to care. Such a system will be embraced not only by physicians and patients but also by insurers and employers.
Looking forward, more providers across the continuum of care will adopt telehealth and solutions partners will expand offerings to combine video chat, secure text, broadcast and other technologies to create a true “virtual care” environment. This will not be a “nice to have” but a requirement to stay in business. Virtual care will truly transform healthcare with modern, impactful ways to maximize patient engagement, improve outcomes, and enable more timely, efficient connections between patients and their physicians.