Telehealth—the delivery of health services via phone or internet—has been around for years, but it has experienced a huge boost in the number of users during the coronavirus pandemic. Most new users adopted telehealth as a safety measure during the pandemic; however, many consumers and providers believe it should remain a standard option even after the threat of COVID-19 subsides.
Providing healthcare services remotely doesn’t just support social distancing measures. Telehealth also offers a number of bottom-line advantages for healthcare facilities.
Meeting Market Demands
In recent years, healthcare has become increasingly driven by consumers, and consumers want telehealth. For example, 89 percent of consumers said that COVID-19 made telehealth “an indispensable part of the healthcare system,” and 65 percent plan to use telehealth more after the pandemic, according to a national study by Change Healthcare.
In a society in which people are accustomed to conveniences such as working remotely, having meals and groceries delivered or picked up curbside, and managing finances and other important parts of their lives online, telehealth simply makes sense. Telehealth services are more convenient and reduce time spent commuting and waiting. They also allow older and sicker patients independence, with no need to find transportation and assistance to get to an appointment.
Telehealth also reduces the number of people in a healthcare facility at any one time, and consumers are expected to continue avoiding crowds for some time, even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat. In fact, the Change Healthcare study also showed that 78 percent of consumers believe that COVID-19 showed the extent to which more telehealth options are needed.
As it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a growing demand for telehealth services, a number of providers are rushing to provide options to consumers. For instance, some national retailers are now providing subscription services for telehealth. Many consumers are likely to turn to one of these options if their legacy healthcare provider does not offer the telehealth services they have come to expect.
Implementing New Revenue Models
Many healthcare providers have resisted implementing risk-based payment models, but the traditional fee-for-service model is becoming increasingly outdated in an age of outcome-based healthcare. Increasingly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, along with private insurers, are pushing providers to accept risk-based payment models, which tie providers’ payments to patient outcomes. Such models can be scary, especially for providers that have always relied on fee-for-service models, but telehealth is an ideal tool for helping ensure those outcomes are positive.
For instance, when providers use telehealth, they can reserve in-person appointments for only those who really need them. This way, they keep relatively healthy patients at home, assessing them through telehealth while helping them avoid exposure to any risks they may encounter by coming to the facility in person.
Using telehealth services also makes it easier for providers to assess patients’ social determinants of health, such as a safe environment and food security. Social determinants of health are responsible for 80 percent of a patient’s health outcomes. If providers can use telehealth to better assess and address these non-medical health risks, they can promote better health outcomes for the populations they serve.
Because it’s relatively inexpensive and requires little staff time to provide telehealth services, this approach offers healthcare providers a less risky way to implement a risk-based payment model.
Telehealth also offers an opportunity for providers to launch new ways of building revenue. For instance, providers or facilities could offer subscriptions, such as a small monthly fee for a range of entry-level services, such as a phone visit and email response from a doctor when needed.
Simplifying Providers’ Workload
Finally, telehealth can be a powerful solution for helping to alleviate provider burnout and possibly keep providers working longer and more effectively. Physician burnout has long been a problem: About half of practicing physicians experience burnout on a regular basis, leading to medical errors, lower quality of care and higher costs, according to the American Journal of Medicine. The problem is even worse in the current environment, as a recent survey shows that 45 percent more doctors report feeling burned out than they did two years ago.
With an aging physician workforce and a looming shortage among both doctors and nurses, increasing telehealth usage can allow providers to care for patients in a safe, low-cost way. Just as patients appreciate that telehealth allows them to have a quicker doctor visit, physicians also report shorter patient appointments and an ability to streamline their schedules. Telehealth allows doctors to see more patients each day, with more meaningful, one-on-one interaction.
Telemedicine also allows providers more flexibility; they can continue to see patients while quarantined at home or while traveling, if necessary. In addition, various members of a physician’s office staff can all see different patients at the same time, providing services digitally.
For providers who are stressed and burned out, some facilities are making mental health services available via telehealth for physicians and other healthcare providers. For busy healthcare providers, accessing telehealth as a patient may be the only way to make personal healthcare fit into their schedules.
The coronavirus pandemic won’t last forever, but the impact it has had on healthcare delivery may continue. The widespread adoption of telehealth services, by both healthcare consumers and providers, is likely to be one of the lasting remnants of this experience. And healthcare facilities that want to remain relevant and in-demand into the future will find ways to embrace the change and keep providing and refining telehealth moving forward.