Telehealth in a post-pandemic world

Telehealth will not disappear from the health care landscape.

The Global Telemedicine Market Report 2022 – 2027 states that the telemedicine market will reach $210 billion by 2027, and the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to drive further investment. The adoption of telehealth accelerated during the height of the pandemic, and now many health care practitioners are wondering how telehealth may change without regulatory waivers and the necessity to stay home.

To start, telehealth will not disappear from the health care landscape. But it has changed over the past several years and will continue to advance.

Telehealth before COVID-19

Before the pandemic, telehealth coverage was limited. According to the American Well Telehealth Index: 2019 Physician Survey, 77 percent of providers flagged less than adequate reimbursement as a contributing factor in their hesitancy to adopt telehealth. This low reimbursement was, in part, because of Medicare’s regulations regarding patients’ place of residence. Telehealth coverage was offered only for those living in a rural area, and then only if they traveled to a specific facility.

Additionally, because telehealth technology was not yet prevalent enough, according to McKinsey & Company, only about 11 percent of consumers utilized telehealth in 2019, even though many other consumers were interested in the possibility. The exponential growth of telehealth was expected even before widespread adoption was taking place. The pandemic simply accelerated the rate at which that growth happened, helping telehealth to become much more common in a short period.

How did the pandemic accelerate telehealth growth?

As COVID-19 necessitated the shutdown of many businesses, even some medical practices, telehealth became the lifeline that allowed patient care to continue. Congress had passed the CARES Act, expanding Medicare’s telehealth coverage. Because of this, reimbursement on par with physical visits was available for telehealth appointments that were provided to patients in their homes.

New solutions were quickly implemented while existing programs were expanded. During the early days of the pandemic, almost 1.3 million Medicare beneficiaries utilized telehealth the week ending April 18, 2020, compared to just 11,000 the week ending March 7, 2020. This accelerated rise of telehealth, allowing providers and patients alike to experience the real benefits of virtual care firsthand.

What is expected for telehealth as we move past the pandemic?

As we move past the pandemic, the demand for telehealth is likely to continue to grow, albeit more slowly than it did in early 2020. Consumer adoption of telehealth rose to 46% as of April 2020, according to McKinsey & Company. From this solid foundation, a sevenfold growth rate is expected by 2025.

Providers who launched telehealth in response to the pandemic should now begin to move from a reactive to proactive strategy for their virtual care program. Telehealth is not going away, although some limitations may return as pandemic-era waivers discontinue. The reality is that patients value convenience and efficiency. Moving forward, providers should embrace telehealth in as many circumstances as possible to continue advance health care into the future.

Telehealth benefits include convenience, infection control, cost savings, expanded care access, increased revenue, and improved patient satisfaction. Telehealth appointments can fit more easily into a patient’s schedule and providers can prescreen patients for infectious disease, determining if they need to or should be seen in-person.

Telehealth also contributes to cost savings in several ways. First, there is a reduction in hospital readmissions when telehealth is utilized for post-discharge care. Potential issues can be discovered and treated sooner, preventing a worsening situation that requires inpatient care. The next way telehealth adds to cost savings is through increased productivity. Virtual visits do not only save time for patients, but it also has the potential to save time for providers. The better telehealth technology platforms offered today can provide the same workflows as in-person visits, including integrated digital patient intake.

Advanced telehealth platforms with virtual workflows allow staff to start the initial connection, begin the telehealth video sessions, complete the patient intake, and alert the provider when it is time to join. After the provider completes the session, patients can be routed again so staff can take care of patient instructions, answer questions, coordinate lab or referral orders, or make follow up appointments.These advancements in telehealth workflows eliminate the early pain points of telemedicine where the burden of the initial session connections and intake fell directly on providers.

The right telehealth solution helps providers easily transition between virtual exam rooms as efficiently as they do in person, providing less potential for burnout and a better patient experience as well. For patients, eliminating the need to travel to and from the doctor’s office is a big cost savings (and time). Finally, telehealth has been shown to reduce the number of emergency department visits, which equates to major cost savings. With telehealth, patients can access urgent care from home for situations where a hands-on approach is not needed.

Additionally, geography has always been a major limiting factor when it comes to receiving care, as patients are left with the resources that are nearby or the option of costly travel. This is especially difficult for individuals in rural areas, underserved urban areas, and those with mobility issues. Telehealth helps limit the geography obstacle and allows patients to conveniently see the providers they need to see. Furthermore, choosing a specialist is no longer limited by location. Patients now can consult with the best of the best, even if they are miles away, providing knowledge and comfort to those facing tough diagnoses.

Lastly, with telehealth, the no-show rate lowers significantly as patients are more easily able to make their appointment without significant disruption to their lives. This helps to reverse the revenue loss from unfilled time slots. With telehealth, providers also have a greater capacity for seeing patients.

The next step of moving into the future of telehealth involves telediagnostics. While a simple video visit is sufficient for connecting providers and patients in certain situations, there is a limit to what traditional telemedicine can accomplish. Telediagnostics can provide more detailed physical exams than telemedicine can. With telediagnostics, providers can check vital signs, view a patient’s ears, nose, and throat, and even conduct ultrasounds and electrocardiograms from a distance. Not only does this technology enable providers to better serve their patients, but it also increases the reimbursement potential for practices by helping to allow higher level billing, even for virtual visits. This adds value to the already incredible benefits that telehealth provides.

The bottom line is that telehealth is not just a pandemic darling. While COVID sent it on a quick rise to prominence, that only accelerated the inevitable. The American Medical Association and the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition conducted a survey which found that patients do not want to see telehealth go away, and 73 percent will continue to use telehealth in the future. Telehealth is here to stay – which is why health care practitioners should have a solution that will help support their practice, enabling them to provide convenience for their patients.

Crystal Stanton is a Digital Marketing Specialist at Henry Schein Medical Systems, Inc., a subsidiary of Henry Schein, Inc. It provides simple, customizable practice management and 2015 ONC Certified Electronic Medical Records & ePrescribing software under the brand, MicroMD. MicroMD delivers simplicity over other complex EMR’s and customizes each offering, so practices only pay for the industry-leading solutions they need, to maximize outcomes and connect with their patients. MicroMD serves as the foundational technology platform at the core of Henry Schein’s fully integrated service team of consultants who are dedicated to helping independent practices, medical groups, community health centers, RCM companies and billing services with supplies, equipment, and leveraging technology to thrive. Visit the Henry Schein SolutionsHub to learn more.