5 Key Takeaways From the COVID-19 Telehealth Boom

March 18, 2021 - 8 minutes read

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COVID-19 brought many changes to our world over the past year, and healthcare and medicine were hit hardest by the pandemic as hospitals constantly scrambled to find enough personal protective equipment, hospital beds, and space to house infected patients during each surge. While hospitals were barely staying above water, providers and patients who weren’t infected were able to continue their appointments using telehealth technology. This technology is relatively new for most people, and it offers a variety of benefits.

Here are five changes caused by the pandemic for telehealth technology that you should know about.

1. Mass Usage of Telehealth Was Possible Only Because CMS Paid For It

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) acted swiftly to enable all patients and providers to use telehealth technology during the pandemic. They covered the unknown costs of payment parity, allowed payment for codes that were previously non-payable, and they worked with the Office for Civil Rights to waive HIPAA guidelines, allowing providers and patients to meet over Zoom and FaceTime for the first time ever. These regulatory flexibilities were invaluable and instrumental in helping telehealth get off the ground faster at the beginning of the pandemic.

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While telehealth existed in several hospital systems before the pandemic, it was confined to specific areas like larger Easy Coast medical systems. Telehealth had a difficult time expanding “due to the lack of reimbursement and payment parity when there was reimbursement all,” according to Iris Berman. Berman is the vice president of telehealth services at Northwell Health, a New York City-based 23-hospital healthcare system. But CMS fixed this issue by directing much of the reimbursement to rural communities, allowing nationwide access to telehealth technologies.

2. Telehealth Offers A Safe Alternative to In-Person Care During the Pandemic

With telehealth, doctors are still able to attend to their patients who need medical attention at home. But telehealth technology has played an important role in inpatient care as well. Dr. Natalie Pageler is the chief medical information officer at Stanford Children’s Health and clinical professor of pediatric critical care at Stanford University.

Pageler says, “During [the pandemic], we also found ways to implement telehealth among our inpatients in the hospital. This allowed physicians to care for patients in isolation while minimizing the spread of infection and conserving personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns.”

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Many hospitals have also had to conference in specialists from other parts of the country that were experiencing fewer COVID-19 cases. This helped prevent hospitals from becoming even more overwhelmed with patients who did not truly need emergency care.

At Northwell Health, two telehealth platforms are being used to take care of inpatient care. These include eICU, which communicates with hardwired ICU beds that come with cameras, a monitor, speakers, and a button that alerts a remote critical care team. The other platform is DTC (direct to consumer), which is used for ER consultations, home televisits, and hospital floor care.

3. Telehealth Can Be More Convenient for Children and Pediatric Care

Childhood requires a higher-than-normal amount of medical care, and many of these visits can be conducted with telehealth. If a child isn’t in need of a vaccine, chronic condition check-ups, or regular testing, telehealth can save everyone some time and money. Pageler says that telehealth for pediatric services also enables children to see a doctor without missing school, sports, or extracurricular activities. Telehealth is also a great alternative to in-person follow-up appointments when possible.

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4. Telehealth Is Now a Necessity

Dr. Peter Antall is the chief medical officer of Amwell, a telemedicine platform based in Boston. He says that Amwell’s monthly visit volume went up by 300% between April and June when compared to visitor counts from January to March. Antall says that telehealth is now a necessity and no longer a nice-to-have tool in the healthcare journey.

He added, “We expect this momentum to largely continue post-pandemic. … You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Now that both patients and providers have experienced the convenience of telehealth, we don’t anticipate healthcare to ever go back to how it was.”

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Pageler agrees that “we won’t return to the baseline we were at before the pandemic” because providers and patients now “see the value and incentive to continue using virtual visits.” Telehealth offers benefits like cutting travel time, reduced scheduling, and better access to specialists, among others. According to research conducted by McKinsey & Co., 74% of telehealth users were “highly satisfied”, 64% of providers are more comfortable using it than before the pandemic, and 57% of providers saw telehealth more favorably than they did before the pandemic.

5. There’s Still a Growing Digital Divide

As a medical application, experts argue, nuanced information and the human connection are missing from telehealth appointments. They also worry that telehealth is creating a deeper digital divide between patient populations. For patients who have regular, stable access to Wi-Fi and updated devices, telehealth is just a new technology in their toolbelt.

But, according to the Federal Trade Commission, 19 million Americans don’t have access to fixed broadband service at minimum threshold speeds. This encompasses many rural patients. Additionally, Pew Research estimated that 19% of Americans don’t have a smartphone. Many patients who most desperately need telehealth technology are boxed out of it due to having unstable or slow Internet connections and a lack of suitable devices.

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Telehealth Isn’t Going Anywhere

Telehealth has proven itself to be an indispensable technology for patients and providers alike. Although it shines a light on ongoing problems, like rural populations’ lack of access to care, technology, and stable Internet, it brings about many more benefits by far. The pandemic may have negatively impacted the world in more than one way, but it also brought us the normalization of widespread telehealth usage. Telehealth technology has enabled patients around the world to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.

Have you used telehealth technology to speak to your doctor during the pandemic? Share your telehealth experience with us in the comments below!

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