Decades from now, medical historians might divide the first half of the 21st century into two distinct periods: Before and after COVID-19. Before the pandemic, telehealth was a rarely utilized or reimbursed alternative method of delivering healthcare by video conference. Now that COVID-19 has spread so rapidly, it's become a prerequisite, a requirement, even a necessity — "the new normal."
The healthcare landscape has changed so dramatically in the last few months, it's hard to play catch-up. What we know for sure: Telehealth has become an essential component of remote practice during this global emergency, and it's unlikely healthcare will ever be the same again, even when the pandemic ebbs. But how did we get to this point?
Telehealth Before COVID-19
Before the pandemic, telehealth was still a novel concept, even though the idea is more than 60 years old. Hospital-based telemedicine originated in the late '50s when the Nebraska Psychiatric Institue and Norfolk State Hospital established a closed-circuit television link for psychiatric consultations.
Still, even until earlier this year, the general public saw telehealth as a specialist service, rather than a universal one — an ad-hoc service for people in rural communities, or those too sick to travel. Most people never saw telehealth as a replacement for conventional healthcare; it just supported the existing system.
All that changed when COVID-19 made it too dangerous to see patients conventionally.
Before COVID-19, only 18 percent of the American population used telehealth services, and the vast majority of these lived in rural communities. Recent research suggests that to effectively combat the pandemic, telehealth will need to reach 281 million Americans soon — that's around 86 percent of the population.
What a difference a few months make.
Perhaps the reason why only 18 percent of Americans used telehealth before COVID-19 wasn't because of a lack of interest, but a lack of infrastructure to support it. Technological limitations across the country, including insufficient broadband capacity in some communities, have rendered telehealth implementation difficult in the last few years. Moreover, inconsistency regarding commercial payers, Medicare, and state Medicaid telehealth policies and reimbursement also restricted widespread growth.
Last May, the nonprofit RAND Corporation identified other barriers to telehealth implementation, including billing challenges, complexities in adjusting clinic workflow, few telehealth specialists, and a lack of buy-in among healthcare providers.
If more than 85 percent of the population will require some form of telehealth service during this crisis, things will have to change — and fast. If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it's that our existing healthcare systems need to adapt to technological innovations. Going forward, there needs to be tighter integration between patient portals, practice management, and EHR systems to provide a seamless patient/provider experience.
Telehealth After COVID-19
COVID-19 has certainly exposed the flaws of telehealth, but it has also showcased its strengths. As more states implement "shelter-in-place" orders, people are hunkering down at home to stop the spread of the virus. Americans still need healthcare — appointments and consultations, check-ups and follow-ups — but much of this is taking place online.
Virtual healthcare interactions have increased 50 percent since March, and experts predict telehealth appointments will top 1 billion by the end of the year. Now the public recognizes telehealth as a viable alternative to conventional healthcare:
Insurers are introducing new telehealth policies
Reduced telemedicine adoption costs through higher Medicare & Medicaid reimbursement rates for physician practices
Google just introduced new telehealth Google My Business links for healthcare providers. We recommend physician offices add their telehealth links to their business page.
Telehealth has provided Americans with an essential service during this time. But it has also showcased the benefits of virtual healthcare. For patients: No waiting in a waiting room, access to more care, and reduced costs. For providers: Reduced practice overheads, increased practice efficiency, and improved clinical workflows.
It's hard to see how things will ever be the same again.
But before we can fully scale telehealth, we need to focus on the current situation. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there's an unprecedented strain on healthcare services at almost every level. The media talks about "social distancing," but "medical distancing" is just as important. Again, telehealth, even with its current limitations, is coming to the rescue. The CDC has urged practitioners to leverage "technologies and self-assessment tools."
The general public is finally understanding that there are various branches of telehealth, and all of them serve a purpose during the national crisis. Telemedicine provides patients with continuous care, and this reduces the workload of emergency services. Telerehabilitation cares for patients in treatment, which prevents complications and enhances self-sufficiency. Then there's tele-coaching, tele-counseling, teletherapy — the list is endless.
Here at TempDev, we fully understand the strain on patients and practitioners at this unusual time. This is why we've been working with our clients to create new solutions for NextGen EPM and EHR. We're lightening the load.
Medical providers can set up telehealth visit types in the NextGen KBM or ACE templates, optimizing virtual healthcare workflows. Other NextGen Telehealth solutions TempDev has created make it easier to set up telehealth visit codes, one-page SOAP templates, document patient video conferences, direct patients to telehealth solutions, and more. Like the rest of the industry, we have adapted to the growing demand for telehealth during and after the pandemic. Contact us to talk through any issues you may be experiencing implementing your NextGen telehealth solution.
COVID-19 has seen a shift in the way Americans use — and perceive — telehealth services. Providers still need to iron out the kinks and make this technology more accessible for all, but telehealth has finally entered the mainstream. Once this pandemic goes away, telehealth is staying put.
Want to find out how TempDev can improve telehealth during the pandemic and in the future? Our suite of NextGen solutions can provide you with the services you need. Call us at 888.TEMP.DEV or contact us here.
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