By Humza Khan, founder and chief executive officer, HealthIV.
It seems impossible that just two years ago, telehealth apps were in their infancy, their growth in the medical sector stunted by the then-widely held belief — by doctors, patients, and insurance companies — that a doctor’s visit had to actually be held in a doctor’s office.
Like so many other sectors, COVID-19 upended healthcare, forever changing the way we think about meaningful, responsive, and affordable access. In the U.S. alone, telehealth visits increased from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020. Those numbers have waned as we’ve all sought out the vestiges of a past normal, but healthcare will never be the same. Telehealth isn’t just “here to stay.” It’s the future of healthcare. Period.
Telehealth isn’t just about convenience. It’s about equity.
It’s a Tuesday, and you’ve taken a paid half-day off work to go to the doctor, an appointment you made six months ago. You hop in the car at 6:45 a.m. and make the hour crawl in traffic to the medical office or hospital where you park on the top level of a 10-story parking garage.
You see the doctor, who writes a prescription order, and after heading out to your car, you drive over to the pharmacy to talk to the pharmacist and pickup your new prescription. Like the other patients you see in the building, you’re frustrated by scheduling issues, drive time, parking, and the fact you sit in the waiting room for two hours to see a doctor for only 15 minutes.
Traditionally, the above scenario and its associated inconveniences have been the drivers for change in healthcare, and those changes have been aimed at solving problems like parking, check-in, and in-office wait times, which all primarily benefit patients who already have access to healthcare. Better parking structures, valet parking services, online check-in, and being moved from the waiting room after just 35 minutes instead of 45 minutes are all good solutions for handling patient frustrations towards inconvenience.
But these types of changes don’t often offer significant benefits to the 31 million Americans who lack health insurance and rely mostly on a too-small number of free clinics, the 72.5 million who don’t have access to a vehicle and are at the mercy of strained public transportation systems, or the 79 million who don’t have paid time off work to spend a full day on buses and in doctor’s offices.
Done right, telehealth can do more than provide equitable access to healthcare. It can empower patients.
Telehealth busted onto the healthcare scene as a means of providing medical care while reducing COVID-19 exposure risks. Despite early challenges for broad use across all population groups, it has continued to remain, and increase in importance as, a tool for equitable access. The balance that comes from telehealth has recently been in question as mandatory insurance coverage for telehealth visits expires 151 days after the end of the public health emergency (PHE). The PHE is currently expected to expire in mid-July 2022 but has been extended several times. Meanwhile, advocates continue to fight for the permanent expansion and retention of telehealth as a basic health service.
Telehealth as a basic service seems like a novel idea. But the core of telehealth is to provide equitable access to healthcare for all. We so typically think of all as “everyone like me, with my frustrations and my concerns” that we miss the bigger picture and it’s easy to think that losing telehealth is an inconvenience rather than a devastating move. But when all means the people in rural areas who typically must travel hours to access healthcare, or the millions of inner city residents who share one local doctor’s office, it becomes easier to understand that telehealth isn’t a novelty. It isn’t new. It isn’t “just for COVID.” It’s healthcare. Period.
From there, it’s not a significant leap to using telehealth to empower patients to take charge of and direct their own health. That’s because telehealth is, and can be, more than just logging in to a video session with a doctor. Done well, telehealth includes a collaborative digital environment where patients can review doctor’s appointments and notes; view, print, and transfer their medical records; view and download labwork and x-rays; ask their doctor and pharmacist questions when something seems amiss with medication; and even involve wellness coaches and nutritionists who can benefit from having access to patient data.
The naysayers will cry that the public, and particularly those who have historically lacked access to healthcare, don’t have the knowledge or capability to understand labwork and x-rays, and that it would confound the process of providing quality healthcare. But reality is that healthcare is changing. Patients want to understand what’s happening to their bodies and they want to have a conversation. Whether that is in person or on video has nothing to do with it.
My company, HealthIV, is working to transform healthcare through a robust, expanded telehealth system that is custom-tailored to patients, and guides them through readily understandable, available, on-demand access to their own health data. Imagine receiving an alert, not only that bloodwork has been completed, but that your Vitamin D or Iron is low, and you should call your doctor for a followup.
Empowered patients are more invested in their health and wellness. We’ve known for years that those who understand, or are given the opportunity to understand, what’s happening with their health are more likely to engage and are healthier than those who don’t. And so there’s no reason not to facilitate patient empowerment.
The point of telehealth’s explosion may have been to protect people from COVID, but that’s not it’s only purpose. The value of telehealth to create equitable access to healthcare over the longterm and to empower patients to manage and direct their own health is already here. And it will continue to grow and shape healthcare whether health and wellness providers engage with it or not; the outcome will be better if we do. The future of telehealth is health. And it’s up to every provider to make it work in the favor of patients. Period.