COVID-19 may have caused you to up your Amazon and Grubhub ordering game, but the pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of digital technologies in areas like health care. Because of the pandemic, data from research firm LexisNexis show that telehealth claims soared to a 7,000-plus percent increase in mid-April 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Long touted as the future, telehealth now looks like it could be here to stay, which could ultimately bring down costs and expand health care access.
What Is Telehealth?
While you may define telehealth as calling your mom for her sinus-clearing soup recipe, the term actually refers to an expanding health care sector. According to the US Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, telehealth encompasses the use of technology to deliver remote health care, along with related areas like health education. Telemedicine is a subset that focuses on medical services, whereas telehealth includes broader aspects like training and administration.
In practical terms, you could use telehealth for everything from having a video consultation with your doctor to using an app like Talkspace for mental-health maintenance to filling a prescription through an app.
The History of Telehealth
Although telehealth possibilities are exploding because of the rise of mobile and robotic technologies, this type of health care existed long before iPhones. In some sense, telehealth is a 19th-century invention—using telephones to reduce in-person doctor visits. Radio was also used to deliver some health care services in the 1920s, according to research published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
This research also highlights how telehealth has been used since the mid-20th century for services such as teleradiology to read scans remotely, as well as for psychiatric evaluations via closed-circuit TVs.
Since then, telehealth has become even more advanced and, in many cases, works just as well as in-person healthcare. For example, research from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies highlights how teledermatology studies show high rates of diagnostic consistency between telehealth and in-person assessments.
The Growth of Telehealth During COVID-19
Technology has increasingly made telehealth more practical and widespread over the years, but the pandemic has been a particularly strong catalyst.
Nearly half of US physicians are using telehealth to treat patients during COVID-19, compared with only 18 percent in 2018, finds physician search firm Merritt Hawkins. In other words, you’re almost equally as likely to find a physician who offers telehealth as one who doesn’t, and the trendline keeps moving toward increased adoption.
Moreover, 60 percent of US patients say they’re more willing to try telehealth, according to a survey by business process outsourcing (BPO) and customer experience firm Sykes.
Similarly, one of the nation’s leading health care organizations, the Cleveland Clinic, reports that remote outpatient visits climbed from just 2 percent to 75 percent of all outpatient visits from March 7, 2020 to April 11, 2020. This growth follows the organization’s still impressive but comparatively slower 68 percent uptick in 2018 remote visits.
These shifts will introduce scores of people to telehealth, and once they start to realize how convenient and comfy it is to see the doc while wearing pajamas, telehealth will stick around long after COVID-19.
Telehealth Is Now Officially Mainstream
Although many providers and patients have adopted telehealth during COVID-19 out of necessity, shifts were already underway before the pandemic started.
For example, the Cleveland Clinic prepared for a rise in telehealth use (pre-pandemic) by partnering with American Well, which provides a secure digital platform to help deliver care. Technology access and security concerns can be a barrier to telehealth adoption, so partnerships like this could lead to even more virtual care.
At the time of the 2019 partnership, the Cleveland Clinic predicted that 50 percent of outpatient visits would be virtual within five years. Now that the organization has surpassed that mark due to COVID-19, telehealth is well on its way to becoming mainstream.
Other organizations like One Medical also support increased delivery of digital health services, which can go hand in hand with traditional care. One Medical, which became a public company at the start of 2020, offers an annual membership-based program that combines virtual and in-person care. For example, membership includes 24/7 virtual care to briefly video-chat with health care professionals. Then if patients need a more comprehensive visit, they can schedule a remote appointment that’s billed through insurance.
One Medical also has in-person clinics in several cities including from Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, membership makes administrative tasks like booking appointments and dealing with insurance easy to handle online.
What the Rise of Telehealth Means for Workers
With expanding telehealth services and more acceptance of this form of care, workers may be able to overcome some of the complexities of the employer-based healthcare system in the United States.
For example, if your employer has a membership with a company like One Medical, you could get administrative support through One Medical’s team, rather than asking your HR department about insurance-related questions. Well intentioned as they may be, your HR team might not be able to help you figure out the intricacies of your insurance coverage. In fact, many employees don’t realize that major insurers like Aetna, Anthem and Cigna offer telehealth services. If you’ve yet to take advantage of these offerings, you may be surprised how much care you can receive online.
In addition to increasing the ease of receiving care, if telehealth brings down health care costs, for example, by saving time and making preventive care more practical and accessible, those savings could be passed on to employees. Contract workers, the self-employed, and others who do not have employer-based coverage can also benefit from more affordable options that use telehealth to expand access to care. The insurer Oscar, for example, allows members to speak with a doctor by phone for free, which can help resolve some issues without a more expensive office visit as well as help determine when an in-person visit is truly needed.
This model can help patients keep their own costs down along with the insurer’s costs, which makes telehealth a win-win. And while the pandemic has undoubtedly been a health care crisis, one of its positive consequences will be a long-term expansion of telehealth services.