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 predicted Europe’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
Several McKinsey 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:
- Reduced costs. Healthcare spending in the US is in the trillions, and this number will rise as the population ages. By encouraging people to manage their health, telemedicine ensures patients receive timely care. It can also be significantly less expensive than a traditional doctor visit.
- Connectivity. Most people (73% of American adults, according to Pew Research) have access to broadband Internet at home; this, along with a connected device, is a prerequisite for telehealth.
- Patient preference/convenience. Telehealth eliminates all of the drive time and much of the waiting time associated with medical appointments. Also, patients tend to be more comfortable and relaxed in their own homes.
- Improving efficiency and outcomes. By eliminating geographic barriers, telehealth improves providers’ accessibility and efficiency, allowing them to treat more patients. And patients can be monitored and encouraged to follow care routines, which results in fewer complications.
Will telehealth replace traditional healthcare?
Probably not. The same McKinsey studies quoted earlier estimate that potentially 24% of all office visits could be virtualized. That’s a far cry from completely revolutionizing healthcare as we know it. But it’s also a good indication of telehealth’s staying power.
|Related: Listen to Star’s podcast and learn how to develop a future-proof telehealth product|
While we don’t expect telehealth to end in-person visits, this avenue of healthcare delivery is here to stay. Thus, keeping an eye on telehealth trends and maintaining a forward-thinking outlook will be critical for all healthcare consumers, providers, and payers.