Before the COVID-19 pandemic, overall Telehealth adoption in the United States was slow. Overnight, our healthcare landscape shifted, and new regulations were executed. To close the gaps in care and abide by social distancing regulations, communities turned to Telehealth resources for care support.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) quickly waived Telehealth payment policies, and healthcare facilities across the country increased and revamped their virtual health services. Adoption skyrocketed and served to progress patient health, create more timely care and establish a remote connection regardless of location in a time where we all needed it.
Communication through virtual channels was a significant factor in reducing the virus’s spread and minimizing risk. Virtual care had an impact on lowering staff and patient exposure, ultimately helping to minimize patient surges in healthcare facilities. Telehealth helped streamline our care to patients while delivering a service level that did not compromise patient safety or quality of care.
It cannot be disputed that Telehealth has played a critical role during the current public health emergency. The fact that patients could be screened remotely without having to visit a hospital, clinic, or practice in person transformed our care delivery model. An added benefit, providers who were in quarantine, had the option to treat patients via remote feeds. Telehealth quickly became an essential tool in our toolkit, but will digital care be our new normal?
Healthcare in a Digital World
As society has adapted to a digital world for shopping, social media, and entertainment, healthcare is experiencing a similar shift. Now, it is simple to pick up a mobile phone and quickly connect with your doctor or request a prescription refill. You can make virtual appointments, access patient portals that act as a hub for your medical information, and receive remote monitoring to keep up with ongoing care. Telehealth also improves the situation for doctors, who can find new ways to care for their patients and more easily connect with other doctors to learn, share and advance medicine.
Not dissimilar to the benefits of shopping on Amazon Prime, virtual access to care can be more convenient, efficient, and accessible to the consumers of those services. Amazon specifically is so confident in this model, they have announced that they will be expanding their Amazon Care program to companies and employers across the United States. Amazon Care is an app that connects users virtually with physicians and advanced practice providers. Services and treatment are delivered over the phone 24-hours per day, 7-days per week, supported by in-person services including prescription delivery and house-call visits. Currently available only to Amazon employees in Washington state, this service is expected to expand nationally by the summer.
The Future of Telehealth
While Telehealth has proven essential and will certainly continue to play a critical role in connecting with patients, the extent of the role it will play on the other side of Covid remains to be seen with a number of factors to be considered.
Quality of Care
There are still some reservations on the part of providers as to whether Telehealth is as effective as in-person care. Although critical in maintaining an ability to provide care during the pandemic, we have not yet had the time and data necessary to appropriately assess quality of care. Additional research will be required to determine the extent to which the same quality of care can be achieved over a screen as it can in-person. Most would agree, that some services should undoubtedly be provided face-to-face in an office or clinic setting. Best practices and guidelines for delivery of specific care needs might be a component of a blended approach as we move forward.
While the pandemic has allowed for ease of use with familiar technology such as smartphones and Zoom to conduct Telehealth visits, it is likely that CMS will require a return to HIPAA compliant platforms which have generally been found cumbersome to use. Disruption to the user experience would negatively impact the perceived convenience of this medium and may act as a deterrent for consumers.
As Covid numbers have decreased, many practices saw a steady increase in office visits despite the continued availability of a Telehealth option. Consumers themselves may be inclined, and some even eager, to return to a care model they have been accustomed to all of their lives. Time will tell the level to which the patient-provider relationship, and associated trust, can be developed and maintained in a virtual world.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it remains to be seen what will become of reimbursement rates for virtual visits on the other side of the pandemic. It is anticipated that such visits may return to a lower rate of reimbursement as compared to in-person visits which is a point of concern for all stakeholders.
It’s likely we will continue to embrace the benefits of Telehealth, but we will have to wait and see the future shape it takes as our world shifts to a new normal.