For the first time in more than 20 years, government officials, providers, health plans and employers are recommending telehealth as the first choice for care, as opposed to an alternative – due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Before the pandemic, only 1 in 10 patients in the U.S. used telehealth, according to a J.D. Power survey. Now, health systems and private telehealth companies are seeing a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth.
The Cleveland Clinic is on track to log more than 60,000 telemedicine visits in March compared to an average of 3,400 virtual visits a month before then. Before March, NYU Langone Health had about 50 virtual visits a day through its telemedicine platform, however during the week of March 23, the hospital system is averaging about 900 a day.
Meeting the Demand.
The demand for telehealth is only going to increase with the federal government recently announcing an expansion of Medicare telehealth services. Meanwhile, nearly 20 states have enacted emergency regulations to increase the use of telehealth to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This has many health systems and private telemedicine companies scrambling to meet the demand and hiring on more physicians and other healthcare professionals.
The Cleveland Clinic, along with other health systems, is responding by increasing hiring and companies such as PlushCare is increasing hiring of doctors by 50% to 100%. And, NYU Langone has 170 doctors who attend to telemedicine patients today, up from 35 two weeks ago.
For many hospitals and clinics, the increased demand has prompted them to move more doctors into the telehealth work since elective surgeries were cancelled and fewer patients are making in-person visits.
A Disruptive Shift to Telehealth.
Telehealth has been around for decades and many health systems have made the telemedicine option available for years. However, the push towards telehealth has been minimal as many systems felt it didn’t make sense financially to promote it because insurers paid less than half the rate they would for an in-person visit.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic may change all that. Advocates for decades have called on Medicare to expand telemedicine coverage, but federal officials were hesitant to respond because of concerns about increased costs. However, the Trump administration had been moving to widen telemedicine options even before the pandemic. In 2019, it allowed Medicare for the first time to pay doctors on average about $14 for a five-minute “check in” phone call with their patients.
Now, the recently announced Medicare payment change is another gamechanger because it covers such a large number of patients and more importantly, private insures usually follow Medicare policies. All of these factors alongside a growing adoption of telehealth among consumers may mean this increase use of telemedicine will be here to stay, long after the pandemic is over.
As physicians, administrators and patients recognize the value of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, the practice is likely to become core to the practice of medicine going forward. In fact, a new report from Frost & Sullivan suggests its uptake will increase by 64.3% nationwide this year, given the disruptions of COVID-19. The report also suggests virtual care and remote monitoring should truly take off in the years ahead, to the tune of sevenfold growth by 2025 – a five-year compound annual growth rate of 38.2% - particularly as technology advances and regulations are overhauled.
Beyond the adoption of telehealth by providers, consumer opinions are changing as well. Almost three-quarters of patients polled for one recent survey said they’d consider using telehealth to be remotely screened for COVID-19 and two-thirds said the pandemic has increased their willingness to try virtual care. The key, for the once-niche telemedicine industry, will be its ability to secure enough staff to keep up with soaring demand.
Telehealth poses huge opportunities and challenges for providers and vendors alike. Among researchers’ predictions: more user-friendly sensors and remote diagnostic equipment, enables better patient outcomes. They also see more practical applications of artificial intelligence and robotics, with advancements such as interactive virtual assistants enabling more opportunities for care.
Also, researchers see more mature deployments in analytics, both now and in the future; better adherence to cybersecurity and privacy regulations, and measurable data that shows telehealth’s ROI – influencing even more lasting regulatory changes, beyond the expansions, enforcement discretion and allowances during the pandemic.
It appears that telehealth has a bright future in store as the pandemic continues to reshape care delivery and opens up big opportunities for virtual care in the near-term future.