Transforming the Medical Landscape: Telehealth Before, During & After COVID-19
Sometimes, innovation is driven by necessity. The worst global health crisis in 100 years forced the healthcare community to change where and how it cares for patients, and telehealth has risen to play a number of critical roles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Healthcare organizations are now using high-quality video to:
- Provide care to patients directly in their homes
- Enable providers to continue seeing patients and keep their practices open
- Assemble global teams of medical experts for consultation and collaboration
- Allow frontline healthcare workers to examine patients remotely to conserve PPE and reduce their risk of exposure
With providers now seeing 50 to 175 times more patients via telehealth since the pandemic started, many in the healthcare industry believe that telehealth has evolved more in six months than in the last decade. Let’s take a look at how the pandemic has changed how we think about healthcare, and what we can expect post-COVID.
Before COVID: Barriers to adoption
Telehealth has been around for decades, but direct-to-consumer adoption didn’t take off until recently. When most people got sick, they went to the doctor’s office instead of logging on for a video visit — that’s just how it was.
Part of the reason was limited coverage for virtual visits. In a 2019 survey, 77% of physicians flagged reimbursement uncertainty as one of the biggest barriers to widespread telehealth adoption.
Medicare, for example, had strict rules when it came to reimbursement for telehealth. Patients had to live in a designated rural area and travel to a special facility for their telehealth appointment. While it helped patients access specialists they might not normally be able to see, they still had to travel — sometimes many miles — to receive care.
Some providers were reluctant to adopt telehealth, fearing it was unreliable or would affect their bottom line. And while most patients who tried telehealth liked it, the technology simply wasn’t widespread enough to attract more than 11% of consumers in 2019.
During COVID: Telehealth transformation
That all changed when the pandemic hit. Medical facilities and private practices closed, and no one knew when they’d be able to reopen. In response, the CARES Act expanded telehealth coverage for Medicare, which became a turning point for virtual care. Providers could finally collect Medicare reimbursement for telehealth visits provided in the home.
Health systems quickly spun up new telehealth solutions or expanded existing programs to ensure continuity of care for their patients. Amazingly, nearly 1.3 million Medicare beneficiaries received care virtually in the week ending April 18, 2020, compared to just 11,000 visits in the week ending March 7 — days before pandemic restrictions were put in place.
Bringing healthcare into the home
Using technology to reach people directly in their homes during the pandemic didn’t just reduce coronavirus spread, it revolutionized the way providers treat patients. Telehealth has become essential to:
- Providing primary and urgent care for common ailments like colds and earaches without exposing patients to the coronavirus
- Conducting mental health appointments
- Triaging patients with COVID-19 symptoms from home
- Remotely monitoring patients with chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes
- Supporting healthy lifestyle changes, such as weight management or medication adherence
Virtual visits have played a role in reducing no-shows and appointment cancellations, which cost the industry billions of dollars a year, and nearly 75% of telehealth patients reported high satisfaction with their experience.
Telehealth for inpatient care
As coronavirus cases surged across the U.S., hospitals and medical centers used telehealth for inpatient care as a way to prioritize the safety and well-being of patients and medical staff:
- Virtual rounding reduced the number of frontline workers entering a patient’s room by allowing doctors to see and treat patients from the hallway using mobile devices
- Hospitals could bring in specialists from around the world to virtually consult on a patient’s care
- Family members could stay involved with patient care, ask questions, and communicate virtually with providers
- In the most difficult situations, including end-of-life care, video communications gave family members the ability to spend precious time with their loved ones in the hospital
Other telehealth benefits
Expanding telehealth helped strengthen public health systems and improve health equity by reaching populations that have long been underserved or struggled with access to care. People living in rural areas, patients lacking reliable transportation or the ability to take time off work, and those with medical conditions that made it difficult to leave the house can now get care when and how it’s most convenient for them.
In addition to enabling quality care delivery, telehealth has changed the competitive landscape for private healthcare, giving providers opportunities to provide cost-effective, convenient care to an increased number of patients. This introduces new revenue streams while allowing providers to save money, address resource shortages, and maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly consumer-driven healthcare market.
After COVID: Preparing for the future of telehealth
We don’t know when the COVID-19 pandemic will be over, or what the world will look like once it is. What most experts agree on is that 2020 has transformed the global medical landscape. Patients and providers alike are now more familiar and comfortable with telehealth, so it’s hard to imagine asking them to go back to the way things were.
So, what can providers do to prepare for the future of healthcare? First, assume the demand for telehealth is only going to grow. Consumer adoption of telehealth more than tripled from 11% in 2019 to 46% as of April 2020, and Frost & Sullivan predicts the telehealth market will see a sevenfold growth rate by 2025.
If you deployed your telehealth program in response to COVID-19, now’s the time to move your approach from reactionary to strategic. Continue to build a competitive program of telehealth capabilities and offerings, enabled by a robust digital platform, to reach more patients and gain market share.
Your telehealth solution should:
- Have high-quality, reliable audio and video, so you can communicate with, examine, diagnose, monitor, and treat patients virtually, even those with low bandwidth or outdated devices
- Meet all your clinical and administrative needs, including integration with patient charts, medical devices, diagnostic tools, and other clinical applications, to streamline patient care
- Enable HIPAA/PIPEDA compliance, with rigorous attention to keeping patient data secure and private
- Have a user-friendly, easy-to-access experience that accommodates all patients, including those with special accessibility needs and low digital literacy
- Offer flexible options and capabilities that support your practice’s customized workflows
Telehealth will continue to play a major role in a hybrid model of care that emphasizes treating patients where and how they prefer — at home, on the go, or in person. With this shift, the industry will reduce costs, waste fewer resources, increase access to care, and improve patient outcomes.
Learn more about Zoom for telehealth and discover how hospitals, health systems, and providers are using Zoom to improve patient care and experience.