COVID-19 has drastically changed everything about our society, from the ways we live and work, to the economy and the healthcare system. It has permanently transformed care delivery and the landscape of telehealth—and those changes are likely here to stay.
Prior to the pandemic, 82 percent of patients had yet to use telehealth services. However, in the wake of COVID-19, usage has taken off quickly. Now, the global telehealth market is expected to reach $55.6 billion USD by 2025. Initiatives like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security—or CARES Act—have made telehealth more accessible and rapidly accelerated adoption throughout the country.
This newfound momentum has prompted significant changes for health systems in the present day, which we can expect to continue well into the future. Here are some of the long-term implications that COVID-19 will have on the future of telehealth:
1. Barriers to telehealth adoption will be reduced.
In many rural areas, the closest physician’s office or hospital is located several miles away. In fact, nearly one-quarter of rural adults report a time period in recent years when they were unable to get the care they needed due to both financial and physical access challenges.
Telehealth has not only enabled safe care delivery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but also increased healthcare options in rural, underserved areas where access isn’t so readily available. However, telehealth services are a relatively affordable, accessible, and convenient care option for rural Americans. In certain rural or low-income communities, stable internet is another barrier to adoption that practices are looking to address.
Older generations that have previously shied away from technology will also be exposed to remote care options, including phone and text-based visits for those without video capabilities. That said, healthcare providers are already exploring new ways to offer access to portable devices with video conferencing software and make it as easy as possible for patients with varying technical abilities and limitations to use them.
2. Reimbursement reform will be expedited.
Reimbursement reform is also likely to be expedited in the future. In response to COVID-19, the Centers of Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has already eased its restrictions for telemedicine. As a result, telehealth can now be delivered to Medicare patients by phone as long as video capabilities are available—and providers can be reimbursed for those services.
Some commercial payers have also modified their payment policies in response to COVID-19. In most cases these changes are supposed to be temporary, but we have to wonder how it will look moving forward. Advantageous private and public reimbursement will continue to fuel the acceleration of telehealth services as practices continue to explore and embrace them.
3. Provider-patient relationships will evolve.
Historically, the relationship between patients and providers has been consistent: The patient comes into the office, spends some time with the physician, and leaves with follow-up instructions. Telehealth services offer a convenient, inexpensive experience from the comfort of one’s own home—but it’s a very different experience than patients (and providers) are accustomed to.
However, COVID-19 has completely disrupted the nature of that relationship, which will continue to evolve over time. According to experts in the field, whether telemedicine is a good or bad thing for the provider-patient relationship is largely dependent on their individual levels of comfort.
4. Demand for integrated solutions will increase.
Healthcare technology is abundant, and there are a number of different types of solutions available to help streamline workflows and improve care delivery. With the rise of telehealth, we can expect demand for integrated solutions to increase.
As healthcare practices adopt telemedicine solutions, they’ll look for ways to consolidate systems and ensure they work together seamlessly. System integration through the use of a suite that offers multiple solutions, such as a patient portal and telehealth platform, offers access to multiple beneficial features within a centralized, easily accessible location.
Amidst all the ongoing changes, one thing is for sure: Telehealth services are no longer a “nice to have” service for patients, but rather the new table stakes. Telehealth services will almost certainly become a permanent fixture in the future, and it’s up to providers and health systems to embrace virtual care to remain competitive and retain patients, both now and in the days ahead.