Virtual care goes by many names, but most medical practitioners know it as “Telehealth” – the technology that gives patients access to care from a doctor without being in a clinic. While telehealth has been around for quite some time now, it was only the demand during the pandemic that it evolved to offer more flexibility and accessibility to healthcare workers and patients.
A McKinsey study has shown that in 2019, telehealth only made up 11% of all the visits surveyed. When the pandemic started and close contact was highly discouraged, telehealth spiked up to 32% for office and outpatient visits. The same study identified three factors for this change;
Increased consumer willingness to use telehealth
Increased provider willingness to use telehealth
Regulatory changes enabling greater access and reimbursement
As the world’s pandemic recovery progressed and in-person care became more frequent than it was, telehealth’s utilization levels across various specialties have stabilized at a level 38 times higher than before the pandemic.
Telehealth Promoted Better Healthcare
Telehealth was initially considered a safer alternative to in-person visits when the pandemic started. Still, as its usage increased, research has been conducted to identify when it is most effective and when it is not.
According to AthenaHealth, telehealth patients had an average of 3.8% more visits than non-telehealth patients in 2020 and 2021. In addition, providers gave more new diagnoses to patients for telehealth appointments than in-person visits, particularly 25% and 88.3% more for physical and mental health diagnoses, respectively.
The utilization boost of telehealth suggests that it has become an essential diagnostic and triage tool that gives patients access to the appropriate care setting. Furthermore, telehealth may help reduce costs because it doesn’t rely on costly resources to deliver the necessary care, such as emergency rooms.
Moreover, mental health support through telehealth has seen demand like never before. In the same Athena Health study, which surveyed 2,000 patients, 23% of its 2,000 surveyed patients said their chances of seeking mental health services increased because telehealth gave them more access.
Another 23% of surveyed patients indicated that telehealth was their choice for scheduled check-ins regarding chronic conditions. Telehealth has bridged a crucial gap in the continuum of care.
The Future of Telehealth Following the Pandemic
To give telehealth a permanent place in healthcare, it must have fair usage across all practice and patient demographics. However, some areas in the US still need to integrate telehealth into their care delivery model despite its recent rise in patient demand.
Equitable usage of telehealth was easier to achieve when COVID-related legislative mandates were in place, but as the world slowly recovers from the pandemic and restrictions start to ease, telehealth needs the following to continue its traction;
State and federal policy acknowledgment of its role
Push for continued reimbursement parity
Better internet infrastructure
“Telehealth is now a core tenet of healthcare delivery in the US. It is incumbent on Congress and the Administration to make permanent the flexibilities tied to the Public Health Emergency that have increased access for patients and provided appropriate reimbursement for a provider’s clinical expertise. Failure to solidify these flexibilities would be a massive step backward.” says Greg Carey, director for regulatory and government affairs at AthenaHealth.
To further support these, McKinsey has identified three new delivery models to help realize the full potential of virtual care;
Increasing convenience to receiving routine care
Integrating e-triage solutions with virtual visits to create a broader “digital front door.”
Integrating care advocacy and telehealth solutions
Experimenting with virtual-first health plans
Expanding the types of care delivered virtually or near-virtually
Increasing access, especially for behavioral health and specialty care
Continuing to expand the range of behavioral health offerings
Increasing access to specialty care capacity
Improving care models and health outcomes, particularly for those with chronic conditions or in need of post-acute care support
Integrating remote monitoring and digital therapeutics with virtual visits, mainly in value-based provider arrangements
Growing hospital-at-home and post-acute care-at-home models
How Can Telehealth Continue to Thrive?
With its demand and what it brings to the table, telehealth provides:
New opportunities to improve care delivery in the US
Decreased related costs
New methods of patient-provider communication
Convenience for all parties
If policymakers and the healthcare sector don’t hurdle telehealth, it can continue to grow and even improve upon what it is now. While there is a common idea that it is limited to video communication, virtual care also extends to digital therapeutics, wearables, medication adherence, chronic condition management, and more.
Ultimately, the future of technology-enabled healthcare depends on whether or not patients are encouraged to take advantage of telehealth.