While the trend indicating an increase in the popularity of telehealth, the practice of providing clinical care remotely, might have originally started to tick up due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had the potential to stick around for lots of reasons.
By the end of March 2020, telehealth “visits” had increased my more than 150%. The impetus for this jump was largely due to pandemic-related health and safety policy changes that made it harder for people to get treated at an in-person clinic. There have been a plethora of benefits, from expanded access to care for patients to less wasteful practices when it comes to personal protective equipment.
Not to mention, the practice made people feel a lot safer. In fact, more than 40% of U.S. adults reported delaying care that they would have otherwise sought out due to concerns about COVID-19.
But now that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, what are the lasting benefits of keeping this system in practice?
First of all, it’s important to talk about the difference between telehealth and telemedicine. The American Academy of Family Physicians distinguishes the difference in the following way. Telemedicine is the practice of using technology to deliver care from a distance, whereas telehealth is the technology that provides that care.
Before the pandemic a much smaller portion of patients were actively using telehealth services – less than 5%, to be exact. And this was largely limited to mental healthcare. That probably has to do with the fact that traditionally, insurance providers have been pretty particular about the instances that they would reimburse telemedicine visits under. Telemedicine use has exponentially increased since those restrictions have been loosened during the past year.
Most doctors and industry experts expect these numbers to stay at this higher level, even now that the pandemic seems to be almost under control.
Of course, there are certain instances that demand in-person consultation. Procedures and lab tests still require equipment, sterilized surroundings, and other factors that make telehealth-related solutions impossible. However, follow-ups and simple instructions can easily be dictated during a video “visit”.
Telehealth will likely never fully replace in-person care, but we have learned valuable lessons about the practice over the past year. Perhaps most importantly, how technology can be leveraged to improve the doctor-patient relationship for all parties involved.