How Telemedicine Will Have Lasting Effects in Healthcare
Telehealth use surged in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic as governments issued stay-at-home orders and providers limited onsite health services. True, telemedicine use declined as more healthcare organizations resume normal services, as patients tend to prefer in-person doctor visits. However, the use and support of remote care options remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Such a significant change in the medical landscape is sure to have a lasting impact. Here is how telehealth’s effects will continue to resonate through the healthcare industry.
Telemedicine legal changes
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued waivers to allow for more flexibility in the use of telehealth. Currently, they are set to expire after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
As these relaxed permissions are set to expire, many health leaders are calling for lawmakers to make them permanent. In a letter to congressional leadership, 430 advocacy groups called for the permanent expansion of flexibilities for telehealth.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that expands access to virtual care throughout the state. Signed into law in July 2021, HB 3308 requires insurance reimbursement parity for virtual mental health and substance use disorder services. The bill also authorizes coverage for all other telehealth through 2027.
Improved healthcare access and outcomes
Continued use and expansion of telemedicine could have many benefits on public health outcomes. Some of the potential benefits from virtual care options include:
- Improved communications and continuity of care between providers;
- Extended access outside of normal clinic hours;
- Expanded healthcare access for rural and underserved populations;
- Increased communication opportunities between patients and providers; and
- Reduced healthcare costs with better chronic disease management.
Expanding healthcare organization capabilities
The benefits of virtual care are not limited to patients. Healthcare facilities, providers, and employers can reap many rewards through telemedicine innovation. Some examples include:
- Alleviating clinician and other workforce shortages;
- Increasing opportunities for workforce training and clinician education;
- Better flexibility when responding to demand; and
- Expanding hospital and clinician capacity.
As healthcare becomes increasingly virtual, providers will have a greater ability to respond to the needs of both their communities and their employees.
Highlighting ongoing disparities
Telemedicine has enormous potential for improving health outcomes. At the same time, its increasing use has also brought attention to many health disparities in the United States.
For example, a report published in JAMA Network Open found significant differences in how patients got a COVID-19 test. Black patients and those with limited English language proficiency were more likely to get a COVID-19 test in an outpatient setting. White, English-speaking patients were more likely to receive a test after a telehealth consult.
Many patients in impoverished or rural areas, such as the Gulf South region of the United States, lack access to reliable technology by which they can use telehealth. Patients may not have money for a smartphone or computer, or may not have ready Internet access. Such patients, who may already be facing serious health conditions, may benefit most from telehealth if they are able to use it.
Telehealth is the future of healthcare, but more work is needed to realize its full potential. Healthcare organizations that work to promote telehealth for patients and in their workflows have an opportunity to become leaders in this space.