After almost three months of quarantine and social distancing measures in the U.S., there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted most, if not all, industries across the nation. But the industry that has been continuously affected the most by COVID-19 is healthcare. Currently, telehealth and telemedicine are hot topics within the industry, and there are a few changes that telehealth will bring into the healthcare industry even after the disease subsides. In this blog post, we’ll examine a few of those changes, including the benefits and concerns of post-pandemic telehealth.

Mainstream telehealth

Technological advancements over the last decade have made telehealth a great tool for allowing patients to have appointments or consultations even if they aren’t physically able to travel to their doctor or healthcare provider. But regardless of a patient’s ability or lack thereof to physically visit their doctor’s office, COVID-19 has forced all healthcare providers to transition to telehealth, and many will likely continue to operate that way well after future contact bans are lifted.

The COO of Providence Medical Group said that “within 7 business days, the organization went from 50 telehealth-trained providers to 7,000 and from 700 video visits a month to 70,000 visits a week.” MedStar, a 10-hospital network, had its telehealth volume rise from two visits a week to as high as 4,000 in one day, “totaling more than 51,700 visits in just the first month.” Their outpatient and urgent care visits via telehealth also increased by more than 500 percent the week of April 12.

Shawn Martin, senior vice president for advocacy, practice advancement and policy at the American Academy of Family Physicians, noted that the use of technology such as telehealth can further prevent unnecessary inpatient appointments which would ultimately increase the efficiency of health care. “While physical examinations and other procedures will still need to take place in person, things like follow-up visits, medication management and mental health assessments could be carried out via video or telephone,” says Martin. In the case that another outbreak with the severity of COVID-19 occurs in the upcoming winter months, the lack of in-person appointments in hospitals could not only help prevent the spread of the virus, but would leave front-line workers to focus their attention on high-risk and infected patients while also freeing up essential resources such as beds for critical patients.

However, one of the main concerns with transitioning to telehealth has been the cost.

Telehealth coverage

Before COVID-19, telehealth was usually not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, and had very strict guidelines as to what was covered or reimbursed. Medicare, for example, only covered phone or video calls between doctors and seniors in rural areas. Alex Turkeltaub, founder of Roam Analytics, a health care analytics company, emphasized that the “tools for remote doctor visits have been in place for a while and only now- because COVID-19 is forcing them to do so- are providers, insurance companies and regulators lining up to leverage the technologies that are out there… Once everyone in the system gets exposed to the benefits and efficiencies of telehealth, it will become the dominant way to access primary care.”

Since March, telehealth visits have increased by 50% with the total number of phone or video interactions to exceed 1 billion by the end of the year. Because of this change, new policies regarding telemedicine have also been adopted, expanding the coverage of telemedicine in the hopes that seniors and high-risk patients will be encouraged to stay home. Those policies include the following:

  1. Patients and clinicians will need a two-way visual and voice connection that allows real-time interaction
  2. Hospitals and a range of clinicians will be able to offer telehealth, including to nursing home residents
  3. Standard Medicare copays and deductibles still apply to telemedicine visits
  4. Legislation authorizing the waiver required medical offices to have an established relationship with a patient to bill for telehealth services. Medicare will now refrain from enforcing that requirement via audits during the outbreak.

Looking ahead

After the state of emergency was put out across the nation, telehealth coverage restrictions were lifted by The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. This gave doctors and physicians a source of income while they and their patients remain in the safety of their homes. But this condition expires once the state emergency is “cleared.” What does that mean for the future of telehealth? Telehealth reimbursement is often much lower than in-person visits, and physicians are usually not compensated at all. This poses an issue for healthcare providers in the case that patients do want to continue using telehealth even after the pandemic- despite the coverage policies returning to normal. But until a vaccine is developed with positive results, the legislature regarding telehealth coverage will need to stay in place. The good news is that these temporary coverage plans may help show government, healthcare workers and patients the potential for forming a more long-term and even permanent system of how the industry will proceed after a COVID-19 vaccine is made.

The healthcare industry will never go back to being exactly how it was pre-pandemic. According to Forbes, some healthcare professionals predict that 20-30% of routine visits will become virtual ones. Changing the regulations and policies won’t be easy. It will take major adjustments, including addressing HIPPA laws, language barriers, and other security solutions. Though COVID-19 is still at large, many transitions are starting to take place in the wake of re-opening phases. Hopefully a permanent solution to telehealth usage will become part of those transitions, making it an available option for providers and patients of all backgrounds.

Lindsey Berke