COVID-19 is Accelerating Telehealth Adoption
While the risk of COVID-19 is greater for older and sicker patients, there have been hundreds of younger and healthier people dying from the disease. People of all ages are nervous—rightfully so—about going to hospitals and clinics during this time. Healthcare organizations are advising people to stay home unless they require urgent medical attention and are recommending virtual treatment options instead. Probably, many are forgoing useful treatments out of fear too. Telehealth has been viewed as a somewhat novel concept in the past — but during the COVID-19 pandemic, that perception is shifting from novelty to necessity.
The term “telehealth” simply refers to the use of digital means and technology to access and/or deliver healthcare services remotely. This concept has manifested itself in many technological innovations that are used today. A few of the more prevalent examples include:
- Interactive Telehealth – remote consultations between patients and providers such as Nurse Advice Lines
- Remote Monitoring and Testing – diagnostic monitoring and testing services performed remotely; remote monitoring is commonly used in association with chronic diseases
- Telemedicine Carts – video-enabled mobile carts that allow physicians to remotely evaluate and interact with patients from a remote location
- Teleradiology – remote evaluation of radiographic images for the purpose of diagnosis
- Telesurgery – surgery performed by a surgeon via robotics, performed from a remote location
COVID-19 is Accelerating Telehealth Adoption
Medicare, knowing that all of its beneficiaries, by definition, are high risk, changed the rules and announced that telemedicine could replace in-person visits to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Under new waiver, Medicare now pays for telemedicine at the same rate as in-person visits. Previously, Medicare had strict requirements for telehealth, requiring that patients live in a rural area and travel to a local medical facility to conduct a virtual visit, and generally not allowing patients to receive telehealth services in their home. Additionally, private insurance companies such as Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield are waiving copays for telemedicine for many members until at least June.
The Department of Health and Human Services also announced that video platforms, such as FaceTime and Skype, are temporarily acceptable for healthcare providers to use. Zoom has also been given temporary approval, although the platform is currently struggling with some security issues. COVID-19 is causing millions of people to try telemedicine for the first time. And based upon app store reviews, people really like the experience.
As consumers of healthcare become more comfortable with technology, the demand has been steadily growing, even prior to COVID-19. Healthcare cannot be delivered in the traditional sense. Telehealth, a viable and safer alternative, is a means of reducing the risk of cross-contamination and exposure associated with close contact.
Changing regulations necessitated by COVID-19 have expedited this growth, and in addition to providing an alternative to reduced access to care, have removed many historic barriers commonly associated with delivery of telehealth services. Telehealth has the potential to be of tremendous help during the COVID-19 pandemic by permitting mildly ill patients to get the supportive care they need while minimizing their and the healthcare providers’ exposure to other acute illnesses. At this time, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and most commercial health plans have largely waived co-pays for telehealth visits as a means to encourage utilization in this time of need.
The historic growth can be quantified by an evaluation of the changes in the supplier base and spend for many prominent hospitals and health systems in recent years. From 2017 to 2019, there were observed increases from 25% to 36% in the number of telehealth suppliers utilized by a given health system and 105% to 165% in subsequent spend with those suppliers.
This shift to virtual care has been on the horizon for some time, but COVID-19 has ushered in this new wave of telemedicine with increased urgency. This will lead to a large number of new startups focused on how to deliver care in previously untapped markets. Specialty medicine will also go virtual, particularly specialties such as cardiology, where high blood pressure and other heart conditions can be monitored through connected devices with more precision than quarterly office-based blood pressure checks and EKGs. Pulmonary medicine can also be virtualized improve the treatment of asthma through connected peak flow meters and emphysema with connected oxygen monitors. Diabetes management is the furthest along with companies like Livongo, Virta (one of Venrock’s investments), and Omada already caring for thousands of patients. Behavioral healthcare also has a huge opportunity to grow, particularly for the Medicare population, which hasn’t traditionally had access.
While it is difficult to predict the future, especially during a crisis, there are a few likely hypotheses:
- The telehealth industry will rapidly expand in terms of competitive suppliers, dollar value, and applications of technology.
- Consumers will become more comfortable with telehealth services, thus increasing demand further.
- Lawmakers will have a renewed focus on telehealth with the goal of increasing access to telehealth services while maintaining patient confidentiality.
- In healthcare, anything that can become virtual will become virtual — examples include video remote interpreting, inventory and asset management, and administrative work.
- IT security will become increasingly important as the healthcare delivery system becomes even more heavily reliant on interconnected networks.
The telehealth industry is positioned and poised for radical growth and innovation that will be spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. As this segment of technology expands, it is our obligation to closely monitor and understand the emerging solutions and their implications. Education of healthcare providers delivering care and the patients who would be accessing telehealth is imperative for the comfort of the end-users and for successful implementation. As always, it is highly important to choose telehealth supplier partners wisely and keep the patients’ best interests in mind during this time of crisis and beyond.