If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-shaped dark cloud that’s hung over the healthcare industry for most of 2020, it’s that hospitals are finally experiencing the benefits of telehealth. Research hospitals and cutting-edge health systems have been slowly deploying digital solutions for years, and they’ve published case studies that demonstrate how telehealth can improve patient engagement, reduce patient stress, improve the healthcare experience, and result in faster diagnosis and treatment. Yet, for many providers, telehealth was still on the wishlist, until COVID-19 made it a must-have.
So, what is telehealth? How have telehealth platforms evolved in recent years, and how are they reshaping care delivery models — during the pandemic and beyond?
Telemedicine — patient care delivered via phone — has existed in some form for decades. Telehealth refers to a broad variety of technologies that support virtual care, including:
These solutions have been on the market for years, but they didn’t reach mass adoption until COVID-19 came along and made them essential tools.
Telemedicine providers like Amwell and Doctor on Demand have steadily grown their patient populations in recent years. Before the pandemic, only 8 percent of people had tried telemedicine apps, but 66 percent were willing to give virtual care a try, according to a 2019 American Well survey. Yet, despite growing interest, most people still didn’t have the option to see their regular physician via video or conduct an appointment via phone.
The coronavirus changed all that. Eighty-five percent of physicians are currently doing video or phone appointments, according to a Sermo survey of more than 1,300 doctors. Having experienced telehealth, most providers want to keep it as an option post-coronavirus. Sixty-eight percent of physicians believe telehealth is a permanent shift, and 77 percent are okay with that.
Patients also like the convenience of virtual care. Fifty-nine percent of consumers say they’re more likely to use telemedicine now than in the past, according to a recent survey by Black Book Market Research, and one-third said they would leave their current doctor for one offering virtual visits.
While telemedicine software and live video apps are helping physicians connect with patients during the pandemic, remote patient monitoring and mHealth solutions are keeping them connected. Physicians can use these technologies to supervise patients from afar, whether those patients are quarantined with COVD-19, suffer from chronic diseases that need to be closely monitored, or are recovering from an acute illness, injury, or surgery.
Even before the pandemic, remote patient monitoring adoption was on the rise, thanks to recent changes in Medicare reimbursement rules that made the technology accessible to more patients. As of last year, 88 percent of health care providers were investigating deploying remote care platforms or had already done so, according to Spyglass Consulting. Now, COVID-19 has further loosened the restrictions and accelerated adoption.
There’s no shortage of case studies, surveys, and research reports demonstrating the benefits of telehealth — from improving chronic care management, to expanding primary care for rural and underserved patient populations, to reducing hospital readmissions for chronic conditions.
At the same time, many surveys of providers and patients have shown rising levels of interest in technology over the past few years. For example, a 2019 Consumer Technology Association survey found that 68 percent of physicians “strongly intend[ed]” to use remote patient monitoring in the future, and 56 percent of patients said they were willing to share health data with their doctors to get a better diagnosis or treatment.
If telehealth software is so valuable, and most doctors and patients are ready to embrace it, why have healthcare providers been so slow to adopt these technologies?
Lack of IT resources and budget might prevent some care providers from fully exploring or investing in telehealth solutions. Interstate license issues have also complicated matters for some physicians, especially those who practice near state lines or work for a health system that encompasses multiple states. However, the primary barrier to telehealth has been low (or no) reimbursement for virtual care.
Before the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) only reimbursed for telehealth services for Medicare patients if those individuals lived in rural or isolated areas, or had a disability that made it difficult for them to travel to appointments. Even then, providers were often paid less for telemedicine appointments than physical ones.
In 2018, CMS removed remote monitoring from the broad telehealth group and began covering the service for all Medicare patients — but many hospitals were exempt from using the new remote monitoring reimbursement codes, and Medicaid coverage for any type of telehealth service still depended entirely on the state.
Those restrictions have been further loosened during the COVID-19 era. Earlier this year, CMS released an Interim Final Rule and Second Interim Final Rule that expands the list of telehealth services and extends coverage to all Medicare recipients, regardless of location. More providers can now bill for remote patient monitoring services. Physicians now get paid the same rate for office visits and virtual visits. And both state-run Medicaid programs and private health insurance companies are offering more telehealth benefits than ever before.
Some of these changes might only be temporary, but as providers and patients experience the benefits of telehealth, many are hoping that payers see the value in it too.
For hospitals, the future of telehealth is all about integrations — integrating their technology to streamline the user experience, and integrating their physical and virtual care strategy to best meet the needs of each unique patient.
For hospitals looking to deploy digital solutions quickly, a multichannel telehealth platform like TigerConnect Patient Engagement can provide video or voice visits using the same platform they use for clinical communications, with EHR access built-in. They can also connect with patients between visits via text messaging.
By enabling clinicians to connect with patients across a variety of channels, telehealth software can improve doctor-patient relationships and bridge communication gaps, especially during the pandemic. It’s not a substitute for in-person care. It’s a way to enhance care, with more communication, more flexibility, and more opportunities to connect — during COVID and well beyond.
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