Telemedicine soars amid COVID-19: Will virtual healthcare be the new normal?

Virtual healthcare visits have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, kicking off a trend that will extend past the crisis.

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The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the growth of telemedicine at an unexpected rate. With shelter-in-place orders and social distancing efforts, many individuals have opted--and been forced--to visit physicians via video conference. 

Virtual care visits are projected to exceed 1 billion in the US in 2020, with 900 million visits related to COVID-19, 200 million visits related to general care, and 80 million visits related to mental health, a Forrester report found.  

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"CVS Health reported in their earnings call that they had seen a 600% increase in virtual care visits over the course of Q1, compared to what they had seen last year," said Arielle Trzcinski, senior analyst serving application development and delivery professionals at Forrester. 

"Furthermore, folks like NYU Langone, for example, that have fairly robust programs, have reported a 4,000% increase in non-urgent care visits that were delivered over telehealth," Trzcinski said. 

The demand in telemedicine during the pandemic has increased so dramatically that the Federal Communications Commission announced a COVID-19 Telehealth Program, in which it dedicated $200 million to build telehealth services for hospitals and healthcare organizations. 

"Robust telemedicine options have been around since at least the late 1990s and early 2000s as consumer adoption of the internet expanded. However, adoption rates were low," said Alex Edsel, professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"CMS (Medicare) is a major driver of adoption. Until this year, CMS did not allow telemedicine visits to be billed at the same rate as in-person visits," Edsel said. "This past March, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS on a temporary emergency basis allowed 85 services to be billed at the same rate as in-person visits." 

Prior to the coronavirus virus, telemedicine was already gaining ground, particularly in mental health. Many rural Americans have benefited from online mental health services for the past few years. 

The coronavirus forced doctors across disciplines to assimilate to online practices. With how successful the transition has been, telehealth services are on track to become the new normal sooner than expected. 

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Benefits of telehealth 

Doctors jumped on board quickly with telemedicine, mainly because the technology saved many physicians' practices, said Clinton Phillips, CEO and founder of Medici, a HIPAA-compliant telehealth app. 

"Doctors went from saying, 'I'm thinking about doing telemedicine over the next few years,' to all of a sudden going, 'I have to do telemedicine, and I need to do it today,'" Phillips said. 

"We've been telling doctors for years that by 2024, there will be more virtual visits per day than in-person visits. COVID has brought that date two years, maybe three years forward," Phillips noted. "Before, doctors were saying, 'Oh, 1% of visits are virtual. This will take forever.' Now they're going, 'Oh my gosh, this is really happening.'"

Major benefits include efficiency, cost savings, and doctors' overall quality of life. 

  • Efficiency 

"[Telehealth] allows a person to not have to drive, park a car, pay for parking, and sit in a waiting room," Phillips said. 

"Not only are providers able to see more patients virtually than in-person, they're also able to provide care to consumers who may not have been able to see a provider otherwise," said Puneet Maheshwari, co-founder and CEO of DocASAP, an access and engagement platform for health systems, health plans, and physician groups.

"This includes elderly patients, those that live far from a care facility, those without a reliable means of transportation, as well as those who can't afford to take a half day off work for an in-person visit," Maheshwari said. 

  • Cost savings

Not only does this save the patient from having to pay for gas or pay for other forms of transportation, but doctors also save money in the long run. 

"The doctor doesn't have to pay somebody to watch over the waiting room, and clean the waiting room and rent the waiting room," Phillips said.

"If a doctor does half of their appointments virtually, maybe they don't need as big an office. They can share their office. They can come in on Monday, Wednesday. They don't need people to talk to the patient before the consult, after the consult," Phillips noted. 

With all of those components eliminated, the cost of a phone call is significantly less. 

  • Doctors' overall quality of life

"68% of doctors say they wouldn't be a doctor again, if given the chance," Phillips said. "Doctors are burnt out. Doctors are tired. Doctors are frustrated." 

Online appointments give doctors greater flexibility, and with flexibility being one of the key factors in preventing burnout, that perk is incredibly beneficial for the provider's state of mind. 

Sectors where telehealth booms

The area of healthcare seeing the greatest growth in telehealth is primary care, Phillips said. 

Primary care visits lend themselves to virtual care because there aren't typically many specialized tests that need to be completed. Even if there were specific tests that needed to be done, those tests are almost never completed in the same office; rather, the primary care provider sends you to a lab testing center, Phillips said.  

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"We'll continue to see innovation around at-home delivery and the ability to do testing at home before a virtual care visit, or even doing something through a freestanding lab clinic, and then having virtual care as a follow-on to then talk through those results," Trzcinski said. 

Other than primary care, specialties including pediatrics, gastroenterology, and behavioral health have the highest demand for telehealth, according to HealthVerity.

While demand is high for online mental health services, that sector actually didn't see marked growth, Trzcinski said. 

"With virtual mental health, the growth in terms of percentage is not as dramatic when we're trying to compare it to other specialties, but that is because much of it was already being done virtually," Trzcinski noted. 

This lack of growth is indicative of how normalized online appointments have become in the mental health arena, which will likely be reflected in other areas of healthcare in the near future. 

"I've spoken to a lot of healthcare executives on both the provider and payer side on this topic, and there's a very strong consensus that yes, telemedicine will be part of the new normal," Maheshwari said. 

For more, check out Rural America is in the midst of a mental health crisis. Tech could help some patients see a way forward on TechRepublic.

Also see 

Doctor and senior woman patient, telehealth

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