The 2020 COVID-19 crisis has forced every industry to be remarkably adaptable, and the healthcare sector is no exception. While almost 80% of hospitals in the U.S. have some sort of telehealth service, many were underutilized prior to the viral outbreak. We generally viewed virtual visits as last-resort alternatives rather than first-choice offerings. That mentality quickly flipped as the customary means of receiving healthcare became unavailable or even dangerous.
Is Telehealth a Temporary Fad?
Faced with a worldwide health crisis, the CDC and WHO were quick to encourage key initiatives to slow the viral spread. Social and medical distancing topped the list, causing remote health consultations and checkups to become the new industry standard overnight. This change has forever shifted the way patients view the necessity of in-office visits and permanently altered the doctor-patient relationship. The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine predicts that by 2024, 17% of all provider visits will occur digitally. A report by Mordor Intelligence predicts the global market for telemedicine will reach $66 billion by the end of 2021. To be clear, telehealth won’t entirely replace the need for in-person appointments; however, this crisis has proven it works and that it will be in higher demand than ever before.
Rapid Growth for Established Telehealth Services
Already, telehealth services are seeing massive growth and working to keep up with unprecedented demand. For reference, Teledoc is doing around 2,000 virtual appointments per day, up 100% since the beginning of March. Cleveland Clinic indicated that they had experienced a 1700% increase in virtual appointments over the same period. pMD, another telehealth service, provided statistics on their March 2020 growth as well, indicated in the chart below. Established telehealth services will continue to strive to meet demand, but we will undoubtedly see new players enter the field to capture a piece of this thriving market.
Why telehealth has been successful during COVID-19
The most obvious benefit of telehealth in this crisis is society’s ability to stay home and eliminate contact with others (flatten the curve). Doctors and patients can conduct video meetings, share photos, and chat without ever coming into direct contact with one another. That said, there are other benefits of telehealth that have made themselves apparent as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Practitioners are on the front lines of a pandemic that they’re both incredibly vulnerable to and uniquely qualified to fight. They walk a thin line between staying safe and effectively helping the many people depending on them for life-saving care. The points below are just some of the ways telehealth is helping them successfully achieve this balance:
Keeping our practitioners safe is of paramount importance to avoid overloading the healthcare system. Using telehealth appointments, doctors can categorize patients by their probability of COVID-19 infection before they ever enter the hospital. In doing so, they can route presumed positive patients with severe symptoms directly to a PPE-equipped area of the hospital. This lessens the risk of transmission for intake staff and other patients. Doctors can advise presumed positive patients experiencing only mild symptoms to stay home or visit a drive-up testing site. This helps stop the viral spread, decongests waiting rooms, and removes the burden of unnecessary visits on providers. Healthcare facilities can also use chatbots and A.I. to handle questionnaires and basic information gathering to streamline the intake process. This saves time, allowing doctors to see more patients in a day.
Improved Patient Outcomes
Many patients fearful of contracting COVID-19 in healthcare settings are waiting longer to seek care for unrelated issues. By the time they do seek care, the issues are advanced and harder to treat. Giving patients the option to see doctors virtually via telehealth software will lead to earlier treatment and improved outcomes. Doctors are also realizing benefits to patient health and safety that are impossible with conventional in-person care. One such benefit is the ability to see inside the patient’s home. Doctors can identify potential dangers or complicating factors that they otherwise would not be privy to.
Expanding Patient Access
It’s no secret that access to care is not the same for every individual. There are certain demographics that lack the means or proximity to seek care, among other reasons. Doctors working remotely are able to see more patients in a workday by cutting out the inefficiencies of an in-office schedule. Thusly, they are able to increase revenue and reduce costs. These savings can be passed down to patients who might otherwise not be able to afford care. Similarly, patients in rural or underserved areas can see a doctor remotely, eliminating the physical and financial burden of travel.
Geographic “Load Balancing”
Another boon of telemedicine is the ability to utilize doctors from a less-impacted region in those that are the hardest hit without physically pulling them away from their own communities. The benefit of being able to instantly staff up during peak infection rates in any given area cannot be understated.
Increased Physician Availability
One of the greatest strains on the healthcare system is the 14-day self-quarantine required when a worker is exposed to the virus. Whether or not they are truly infected and/or experiencing symptoms, they must withdraw from the workforce for a significant amount of time. Using telemedicine, healthcare workers who are quarantined but well enough to work can continue to serve in an equally impactful way. Keeping as many hands on deck as possible is key to keeping the system from being overrun.
There are undoubtedly many potential issues with disease monitoring, particularly when it relies on crowdsourced data; however, any chance we have to get in front of a new wave of infection is worth pursuing. Technology enables users to submit data on new infections or potential exposures. In turn, policymakers and healthcare personnel can make educated guesses about where the next outbreak will be. The hope is that this facet of telehealth will lead to greater preparedness and better outcomes.
We certainly underutilized telehealth before COVID-19 struck; however, with a return to “normal” years away (if it ever returns at all), it’s unlikely we’ll ever see usage return to pre-pandemic levels. Quick mass-adoption of this technology in recent months has exposed us to many of the unique benefits of telemedicine. It is hard to imagine going back to less efficient, more expensive care when social-distancing restrictions are lifted. There are certainly kinks to work out and improvements to be made, but it’s possible that this crisis has given us the push that we need to dedicate the time and resources to making telemedicine the best that it can be.