Telehealth continues to be a priority for the healthcare industry. It has proven itself throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent Zoom research found that in the U.S., 72% of survey respondents want to attend healthcare appointments both virtually and in-person post-pandemic, demonstrating the clear need for telehealth as an option for this hybrid approach to healthcare.
Despite the success of telehealth during the last year and a half, some have questioned its broader use as healthcare returns to in-person office visits. However, this reversal could put certain communities and demographic populations at a disadvantage, such as those in rural areas or ones without reliable transportation.
Healthcare IT News sat down with Heidi West, head of healthcare at Zoom, to discuss telemedicine’s future, hybrid in-person/telehealth care, communities that could be hurt without virtual care, and challenges to telemedicine becoming fully mainstream.
Q. Telemedicine visits have tapered off some since their pandemic peak in 2020. Will telemedicine remain popular? If so, what will drive its continued popularity?
A. During a year full of stay-at-home mandates and concerns about public safety, it makes sense as to why we saw such a sharp increase in the use of telemedicine solutions – virtual care offerings made it possible for us to get the help we needed while largely staying out of harm’s way, and protecting ourselves and loved ones.
Yes, there will always be a need to provide in-person care – surgical procedures, imaging and specific hands-on care still will require actual office visits. However, the opportunity for telemedicine is tremendous, and physicians should consider a virtual-first mentality to support the convenience and safety of the patient.
Some forms of medical care can easily be managed over virtual platforms, and by continuing to be available virtually, providers can reach new audiences, regularly track existing ones and even grow stronger patient-provider relationships than before.
One area that is particularly well-suited for this is psychiatry and psychotherapy. With online therapy, providers can meet with patients far from their physical office space, opening up opportunities to take on new business outside of the immediate neighborhood, as well as meet with patients at different times, since travelling will not need to be taken into consideration.
There also is untapped potential for video communications and telehealth platforms to help aid and enhance group therapy experiences. Studies have already shown higher demand for online group therapy and fewer no-shows among the participants who sign up for sessions.
We also will see some medical practitioners such as nutritionists and dermatologists continue to use telehealth solutions in their practices. There are many cases in which doctors in these fields can provide expertise and recommendations to patients via video conferencing in the same way they would in person.
Telemedicine will continue to bring a level of flexibility and accessibility to the patients that need it in these realms, and it will only continue to grow as we become an even more digitally connected society.
Q. In your recent study, the clear majority of consumers want both virtual and in-person care. This seems to show a need for telehealth as an option for a hybrid approach to healthcare. What will this hybrid look like, more specifically?
A. We will see this hybrid approach combine the best of both the physical and digital worlds to offer an incredible experience. Generally, we’ll see more primary consultations conducted via virtual platforms, with providers then asking patients to come in or engage with a specialist either remotely or in person as needed. This provides a greater number of patients with a greater level of convenience.
Because of the pandemic, there also has been a heightened awareness and preference to manage post-acute care and chronic conditions at home. Providing accessibility to care in the home will be one of the greatest growth areas for telehealth. We’ll likely see more outpatient care or physical rehab programs conducted over video calls for patients who have recently undergone surgery and are resting at home.
New hybrid experiences also will improve information sharing and precision among doctors in their respective fields. Rather than waiting for hours across time zones for emails to be read and sent about a specific case, videoconferencing can allow doctors that are physically in a room examining a patient to digitally share information with consultants or experienced professionals outside of the room – or even in other parts of the world – in real time.
Additionally, no longer do smaller hospitals or doctor’s offices have to solely rely on experts in or near the local community – the talent pool for a given procedure or evaluation vastly expands when video conferencing is a part of the equation.
Q. While telehealth has indeed been very successful amid the pandemic, some experts have questioned its broader use as the industry returns to in-person care. You’ve said this reversal could put certain communities and demographic populations at a disadvantage, such as patients in rural areas or without reliable transportation. Please elaborate.
A. Yes, a great deal of the population lacks the accessibility to healthcare in the same ways that people in affluent and urban areas often have. Urban dwellers generally come across a greater number of doctors’ offices, specialized care facilities and treatment options, whereas those on the outskirts or those without reliable transportation have limited choices in when and who they see as medical issues arise.
The evolution of telehealth and its swift adoption during the pandemic gave many communities access to doctors and other medical professionals that they normally wouldn’t be able to see.
As an example, before committing to buying an expensive plane ticket and hotel room in order to see a specialist in a city far away, a patient in a more rural area can join a video conference to discuss any issues with the specialist ahead of time and determine if the trip is truly needed. This saves both parties time, money and peace of mind.
Certain demographic populations also have seen the positive effects of virtual care in a way that wasn’t as prevalent before the pandemic. For example, minority race groups and people of color oftentimes have difficulty finding therapists or psychiatrists that understand or align with their cultural beliefs. However, the proliferation of online therapy sessions during the pandemic has drastically changed this.
Virtual health services have allowed patients to find and connect with the mental health professionals that have academic, personal and professional backgrounds that align with their existing values and beliefs, even if the practitioner lives outside the immediate region of the patient. For the first time, many marginalized groups are getting the care they need from people they trust and connect with on a deeper level.
Removing telehealth as an option for care also removes a great deal of accessibility for people in similar situations to the above, or those who previously were not able to nor offered an opportunity to get the care they needed. Losing these options could mean driving a greater divide between socioeconomic groups and regions throughout the U.S.
Lastly, and conversely, many physicians need to consider the increased competition threatening their patient population by not prioritizing digital health solutions. Between direct-to-consumer telehealth apps being developed daily, and retail health becoming more prevalent, there is a significant risk to not offering virtual care. Doctors and other providers could lose their patients to other companies and practices that are ahead of the curve.
Q. What are remaining challenges to telemedicine being fully mainstream, including permanent reimbursement? How will healthcare provider organizations overcome these challenges?
A. There are a couple of challenges that come to mind. The first that inhibits a large portion of the global population from widely leveraging telemedicine is lack of Internet connection. Without broadband and easy access to the web, telemedicine is nearly impossible. In time and with strong partnerships with Internet service providers and telecommunications organizations, the two industries will be able to offer greater accessibility to consumers and potential new patients.
The second is the issue of reimbursement. There still is a lengthy discussion to be had about if payers should be required to reimburse for a telehealth appointment or service the same as they would for an in-office one.
Some view a virtual care experience as less valuable and therefore, financially, worth less, as well. Providers and payers must work with legislators to combat this notion, and instead recognize the importance of telehealth, focusing on the needs of the consumer and potential to actualize value-based care.
Virtual healthcare services will only continue to proliferate due to consumer demand and market competition. Regardless of reimbursement structure, the requirements and advancements in telehealth will dictate continued interest and opportunities.