Telehealth was available prior to COVID-19 but its use certainly wasn’t as widespread as it is today.
Telemedicine has been used for some time in the U.S. and has been preferable to some, worrisome to others. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit, it seems to have quickly become the norm and seems to be here to stay. Data shows that by the end of April 2020, telemedicine visits had jumped to roughly one million visits per week. This includes the use of teletherapy, which prior to the coronavirus HIPAA compliant revisions, had been little more than a suggestion for allowing patients sufficient access to care.
As this new form of patient care becomes more and more normalized, many have found that the convenience of meeting with their doctors and the ability to book back-to-back appointments (if coordinating care) is has saved significant time. No longer do patients have to take time off from work and worry about commuting. What’s more, the use of virtual medicine has cut down on the potential for exposure to the deadly virus while ensuring those who need it the most are still able to book appointments.
A study released by the American Medical Association (AMA) in February 2020 showed telemedicine visits had doubled from 2016 to 2019. And yet, it wasn’t until a few months later that this field truly solidified itself as a viable care option. A great alternative for families with young children, those working full-time and others who find it difficult to schedule an in-person visit, quickly this structure became well-received by a broad range of populations hoping to stay where they’re at and still receive care. Patients in rural areas, who once had to travel quite a distance, were able to quickly and easily set up a time to meet online. Those without reliable transportation no longer had to view this as an obstacle to treatment. Patients with chronic conditions were able to stay home and not have to risk exposure.
There are a few downfalls to this relatively new practice, however, including lingering uncertainties regarding insurance reimbursement, state-to-state licensing nuances, and privacy issues. Plus, not all services can be delivered online and some patients simply do not have access. There are still many treatments, including injections and certain testing, that simply have to be administered in person. Many of the online meeting platforms have had to abruptly alter their platforms, too, to ensure HIPAA compliance with those that were most forward-thinking the first in line for use.
“Low reimbursement for telehealth was viewed as a critical disincentive,” wrote the authors of an opinion piece in JAMA, because, “Without payment, it would be difficult for clinicians to afford to provide the service, despite data from previous studies suggesting clinicians were broadly supportive about its use. The business case needs to catch up to the clinical case. The key in making further progress is to continue to wipe away old assumptions about what will and won’t work.”
Yet, even with a few stumbling blocks along the way, as with anything COVID-related, the ability to adapt on the fly has been essential for physicians, patients and platforms, and providers have been forced to roll with the changes. Long story short, telemedicine seems to be the future of medical care and is here to stay.
Dr. Til Jolly, Telemedicine Lead, COVID-19 Health Care Resilience Work Group Supporting the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “We frequently think of telemedicine as a system whereby a patient picks up a smartphone, presses an app, and gets a doctor on the screen for an urgent care visit or a more routine problem. The evolution of telemedicine, which accelerated rapidly due to COVID-19, has resulted in many more access stories to tell…Much of this system will work post-COVID, as long as payment systems keep pace with reality on the ground.”