COVID-19 has brought a great deal of change to how we live our lives. The need to maintain safe-distance protocols has seen many industries shift to remote operations wherever possible. In healthcare spaces, this has been a significant challenge. We have been forced to adapt to achieve the delicate balance between ensuring patients get the care they need, and reducing the risk of exposure.
This is where telehealth has really come into its own. While the numbers are still up in the air, one recent study found that insurance claims for telehealth services increased 2,938% between November 2019 and November 2020. Patients and professionals alike have in some ways been forced past their personal and technological roadblocks, discovering the many benefits that utilizing care services remotely can offer. Indeed, as we start to see some light at the end of the dark tunnel that has engulfed our society over the last year or so, telehealth has become a more permanent feature of our healthcare landscape.
This raises some interesting questions and some important issues about the near future of telehealth. We’re going to take a look at what we are likely to see as we emerge from the pandemic. What tools and practices could make a difference? What problems do we still need to solve?
Remote appointments are already starting to make our lives safer. Particularly for those in rural communities who may not have immediate access to doctors, telehealth means that medical professionals can visually assess conditions and give advice. However, as we move toward the future there needs to be an emphasis on how medical professionals can treat a wider range of conditions, preventing patients from taking the unnecessary risk of exacerbating their conditions by traveling to doctors’ offices.
Part of this involves producing an infrastructure with various providers that supports collaboration. Facilities must build relationships that allow them to assess a patient remotely, then hand off to a specialist, traveling nursing staff, or pharmacist who can visit patients to undertake further care. Alongside these relationships, it’s important to build, and frequently assess, robust protocols that ensure that these collaborations are undertaken efficiently and safely, without any points at which patient welfare slips through the net.
Among the many changes the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, the new prominence of telehealth – healthcare delivered remotely, with provider and patient in different locations – has captured many imaginations. Has this changed the face of healthcare forever? Will visits to doctors’ offices become a thing of the past? Or will telehealth fade back into fringe use once the pandemic ends?
Telehealth before and during the COVID crisis
According to Kaiser Health News, 31% of Americans put off non-essential doctor visits during late March and early April 2020. Nearly a third of those surveyed said this was because they were concerned about contracting the virus. Meanwhile,FAIRHealth’s records show that telehealth claims increased by 5,679% from May 2019 to May 2020 – and urban telemedicine usage rose from .08% to 4.89%.
We can definitely say that COVID has influenced the adoption of telehealth over the last year. Interestingly, though, statistics indicate that telehealth was growing well before the pandemic existed. A study released in March 2019 predictedEurope’s telemedicine market would experience a compound annual growth rate of 16.72% between 2019 and 2024.
Clearly, there was existing interest around telehealth before COVID hit. After the crisis is over, what impact can we expect telehealth to have on medical care?
Telehealth and the future of medicine
SeveralMcKinsey surveys taken in April and May 2020 share interesting insights on the probable future of telehealth after COVID. Briefly, these studies found that:
76% of those surveyed were interested in using telehealth in the future.
74% of telehealth users were highly satisfied with the process.
57% of healthcare providers now view telehealth more favorably and 64% are more comfortable using it.
In addition to positive experiences and growing comfort with telehealth services, we also have to factor in the length of the current pandemic. In many areas, a second wave of infections is being reported; the longer people social distance and limit contact, the more using remote healthcare becomes a habit. And it looks like this habit will continue – not just because people are used to it, but because the same factors that propelled telemedicine forward pre-pandemic are still in force:
The recent global medical crisis forced people into isolation and even quarantine environments. It also revealed weaknesses in such areas as medical translation and interpretation services that were previously viewed more as a matter of convenience rather than as an absolute necessity.
There is talk today of an imminent second wave of the Coronavirus crisis and further lock-downs and more extensive isolation being put in place to stem the spread of the virus. Is the telehealth industry ready for a new wave? What weaknesses in remote health care remain to be addressed? What does the future of telehealth hold to help not only in times of crisis but in everyday life?
Remote Healthcare, Telehealth, and Medical Interpretation Services
There was a time in the not-so-distant past, and even to this day in many cases, where medical interpretation services are seen as more of a nuisance than they are a real benefit. In the United States, this is especially common with Spanish interpretation but remains a common occurrence that can be effectively resolved with remote medical interpreters and other telehealth solutions. The role of remote medical interpreters should increase in use and importance in the world of telehealth and telemedicine.
The role of the medical interpreter can be exceptionally challenging, especially given the lack of specific knowledge regarding medical terminology. In lieu of a more pleasant sampling, the example here will focus on the specificity of relevant medical terminology that is especially important given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic.
When individuals are gathered in a more informal conversation regarding colds, cases of flu and COVID-19, they may refer to a more generic word like “spit.” In reality, this is not so much a medical term as phlegm, saliva, and mucus, all three of which have a more specific medical meaning, and all three of which are very relevant to a proper diagnosis and treatment, most notably in terms of any potential respiratory disorders such as those produced by the Coronavirus family.
Any time when someone who is not a professional or certified medical interpreter is used, there is an increased risk that the precise medical meaning of the term may not be fully understood in either language, and the incorrect translation will result in a misdiagnosis.
Telehealth has been a hot topic during COVID-19, but the technology powering virtual care consultations has been around for more than half a decade. A survey from 2014 found that 90% of healthcare organizations had already begun to implement telemedicine programs six years before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
But telehealth struggled to become a primary method of care delivery due to the negative perception of it within the health care industry. Telehealth was viewed as a claims deflection model that only treated low acuity patients, and this perception created a negative stigma for medical professionals regarding billing for telehealth solutions.
The same study found that 41% of health care provider respondents were not reimbursed for telemedicine services, and 21% reported receiving lower rates from management companies for virtual care. Health care professionals felt they were doing the same amount of work for little to no compensation, and because telehealth was typically reserved for low acuity patients, they had an exceedingly high no-show rate.
COVID-19 and the Explosion of Telehealth
The need for socially-distanced health care launched telehealth to the forefront in 2020. The pandemic forced the industry to quickly adapt telehealth for a broader spectrum of patient care, and claims models have since enabled clinics to bill virtual appointments like in-person visits.
This adjusted approach to telehealth also opened the door to potentially life-saving benefits, such as reserving in-person care for the highest acuity patients, increasing the scope of provider networks outside of a patient’s immediate location and allowing patients to receive quality care in the comfort of their homes.
According to research published by Advisory Board, doctors spend 37% of their day on administrative tasks, which shifts their attention away from patients and onto their technologies.
Because of this, it’s critical for telehealth solutions to be mindful of the pre-existing administrative burden on doctors and health care staff. Telehealth should simply be another vehicle for providing care—not an unnecessary hindrance.
With the use of telehealth, patient data management becomes particularly important. Clinicians can provide telehealth services to anyone in any state they’re licensed to practice in, but this can turn out to be a disservice if data isn’t integrated properly.
Providers who are seeing a patient for the first time through telehealth need to make sure they have access to the patient’s up-to-date medical history. By having an interoperable network of health care technology, telehealth providers can make more accurate diagnoses, collect data and bill accordingly while providing the highest level of virtual ongoing care.
Telehealth is the provision of healthcare via digital information and communication technologies. Most often employed via computers, tablets and smartphones, telehealth also includes an emerging range of health products such as remote monitoring devices, digital biomarkers and wearable technology.
While telehealth adoption had been growing steadily over the last decade, its role in facilitating care during the COVID-19 pandemic cemented its place as an essential healthcare delivery channel.
While telehealth is presently most often employed through video consultations between patient and provider, it encompasses a broad array of clinical and nonclinical uses such as:
Aggregate patient data
Prescription management and adherence
This list is only a small selection of the current ways in which telehealth is deployed. Over the next few years, we’ll continue to see the scope of telemedicine expand into new arenas while growing even more capable in current fields like:
According to a recent IBM Institute for Business Value survey of more than 5,000 U.S. adults, just over 36% of respondents have already taken advantage of telemedicine services to seek remote care for less urgent health issues since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of those surveyed, 59% plan to keep using these services into the future, despite the fact that only one-fifth of those surveyed sought virtual care before.
As patients and their providers increasingly recognize the value of engaging virtually, and as we transition into our ‘new normal’, healthcare organizations will need to expand their virtual capabilities to keep up with increased demand for telemedicine while ensuring personalized, seamless delivery of high-quality care. But how?
Increased adoption fuels greater acceleration
Virtual health services and capabilities have been available for quite some time. But in light of a strained and reconfigured healthcare system due to COVID-19 – and with many patients self-isolating – the rate of adoption and use has increased. In years to come, this adoption is likely to gain momentum as demand continues to grow.
Routine face-to-face medical care is now limited for most Americans due to the pandemic, prompting many to take advantage of remote services to access the care they need. And as many parts of the country plan ahead for a world with less in-person interaction, more consumers may choose to forego the process of scheduling an in-person appointment with their provider if they know that it’s possible to receive the same high-quality care through virtual visits.
More than half of those surveyed in IBM’s latest poll indicate they have had a positive experience using telehealthcare services, such as telemedicine, telenursing and telepharmacy, either before or during the current crisis – and that positive experience must be upheld.
To maintain and build on the increased traction of virtual care, providers need to work to ensure that these platforms and services are easy to use for those who are not technologically savvy. It is also critical that they support these services with robust and secure infrastructure so their digital offerings are available and reliable at all times – to the benefit of both patients and doctors.