Prior to the onset of the pandemic, telehealth was available but widely underutilized by patients. Regulatory limitations and questions around reimbursements also hindered widespread adoption by providers.
That is until the unprecedented arrival of Covid-19 forced healthcare systems to pivot.
As lockdown protocols and social distancing measures were implemented, patients were forced to seek alternative ways of accessing care. Several agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, instituted policy changes to allow for the quicker adoption of telehealth.
Increase in Telehealth Usage
Correspondingly, a number of states broadened telehealth usage, fostering increased participation, loosening regulations surrounding online prescriptions, and encouraging better continuity of care. Commercial insurers also made significant changes to accommodate the challenging environment, expanding coverage and in-network providers offering telehealth, while curtailing cost-sharing.
Not only did these changes drive telehealth’s speedy rise during the crisis but they also helped expose the significant benefits virtual care offers. In fact, the number of people utilizing telehealth services jumped from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. What’s more, 83% of patients who used telehealth amid the pandemic reported being satisfied with the quality of their visit, and over 70% expect to continue using it post-pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Covid-19 Healthcare Coalition.
One of the study’s co-investigators, Steve Ommen, M.D. shared, “The experience with telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has opened everyone’s eyes to the potential to deliver healthcare in much more safe and convenient ways.”
“I think that years from now, we will point to 2020 as the year that the potential of digital care delivery became a reality, as long as the regulatory and reimbursement environment is conducive to its growth.” continued Ommen, Medical Director of Mayo Clinic Center for Connected Care.
And it’s no surprise, given that telehealth offers an effective solution for improving access to care and preventing patients from delaying routine exams. Further, it provides healthcare organizations with an opportunity to address growing concerns surrounding burnout and tap into a larger pool of providers and patients by eliminating geographic barriers.
The Future of Telehealth
Moving forward, there are several factors that must be addressed to ensure telehealth continues building momentum and serves as a viable solution for patients.
- Nationwide Licensing: As mentioned, regulations differ from state to state. And while many states modified their licensure requirements in response to the pandemic, new policies will need to be put in place to continue providing telehealth services to patients across state lines. For states not currently members of the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC), physicians are constrained to solely providing care for patients living in the state(s) they are licensed in. For the 29 states currently participating in this compact, physicians can treat out-of-state patients via telehealth.
- Permanent Reforms: Prior to the pandemic, it was illegal for providers to charge Medicare for patient consultations performed via virtual means. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services temporarily lifted reimbursement restrictions during the pandemic due to extenuating circumstances. Private insurers followed suit, not only reimbursing virtual care visits, but also matching rates paid for in-office visits. New reforms will need to be instituted in the wake of the pandemic. Additionally, healthcare systems should consider adopting a value-based care model where compensation is linked with patient outcomes versus being tied directly to services rendered.
- Access to the Internet: In rural and underserved communities, not everyone has reliable internet access. In fact, one in five rural Americans shared that accessing high-speed internet is a problem for them or their family, according to a study conducted for NPR. Telehealth offers a promising opportunity for underserved populations to access quality care. However, the right infrastructure needs to be established to rectify internet-related barriers in order to make that a reality.
There’s no denying the irrefutable benefits telehealth offers. And studies show it is certainly here to stay. But in order to ensure it can continue to scale and survive long-term, policies and procedures will need to continue evolving – even in the wake of the pandemic. Health systems can bridge coverage gaps, combat burnout, deliver a better patient experience and encourage more individuals to actively participate in their health and well-being simply by offering telehealth services.
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