Telehealth during the pandemic – Where do we go from here?

Alison Chartan

As we continue to fight COVID-19, where will telehealth go next? While nothing is certain, it’s likely that the popularity of telehealth will be here to stay.

Telehealth has more than boomed during the pandemic – it has thrived. Policies were temporarily changed to allow providers to “see” patients via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and more, without violating HIPAA regulations. In the last week of March 2020, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits compared to the previous year. Telehealth usage fluctuated throughout the remainder of the year, as people scheduled previously-postponed in-person appointments that could not be done through telehealth.
Virtual visits helped people receive important medical treatment while practicing social distancing. I participated in several virtual doctor’s appointments for myself and my child, all of which I would describe as successful. But they also provided increased convenience – zero time spent traveling to and from appointments, zero time spent mindlessly scrolling while sitting in crowded waiting rooms, zero time spent looking for parking (and zero dollars spent paying for it).
We also saw adoption of telehealth by seniors, people living in rural communities and underserved populations, albeit perhaps in less traditional ways. Telephone calls and other services that didn’t require video were offered – and, importantly, covered. There’s still more progress to be made in ensuring all people have equal access to telehealth, but the path to access is now faster than it was one year ago.
So, as we continue to fight COVID-19, where does telehealth go from here?
While nothing is certain, it’s likely that the popularity of telehealth will be here to stay. However, without new policies from Congress to foster equal coverage and reimbursement for in-person visits and provide continued access to virtual appointment platforms, the availability of coverage for telehealth services may not be.
People will continue to seek ways to receive care at home. Whether it’s through online visits, home care services or other channels, virtual care will continue to rise. We’ve seen the launch of tons of health-focused start-ups, including those focused on issues like mental health and family caregiving, as well as more tailored offerings like wound care and physical therapy.
But as virtual care increases, health disparities may widen. Access to and ability to use technology may result in even wider gaps in virtual care use. Many providers have found ways around these issues, but new solutions are needed to continue to close the gap.
Dependence on wearables – such as those that can detect heart rate, temperature and sleep levels – is likely to continue to increase beyond COVID-19, especially as these devices become more sophisticated.
Funding for health technology –such as behavioral health apps and services, and other ways to receive care at home – will continue to rise. The convenience, privacy of your own home and ease of use will likely outweigh other challenges (e.g., licensing). But again, reimbursement will be key.
As recent news stories have shown, health tech is already facing its next test – COVID-19 vaccine registration. Our counties and states are working to balance supply challenges and vaccine availability with the need to vaccinate millions of people. Registration websites, with vetting processes to ensure those most in need of the vaccine have access first, will be critical to helping essential workers and seniors get vaccinated.

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