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-19Before 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-19COVID-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.