We are all much better acquainted with telehealth than we were just 18 months ago. The need to receive medical attention during the pandemic drove concerns about exposure in crowded waiting rooms and ERs, resulting in people turning to telehealth as the solution to continued care.
As a result of this paradigm shift, telehealth expanded exponentially in less than two months: McKinsey & Company reports that telehealth use was 78 times higher in April 2020 than it was in February 2020 and that demand remains high: about 40 percent of consumers surveyed expect to continue to use telehealth, up from 11 percent using it before the pandemic.
While the COVID virus continues to show new variances, the move towards telehealth appears permanent, as the benefits from telehealth have the opportunity to continue to support more lives in meaningful ways. Along with the rise in telehealth usage and incentives to leverage the technology, we’ll also see a rise in other areas, including the impact it has on communities, regulatory reform, and investment in continuous innovation.
Among the many ways, telehealth is being leveraged is to provide increased patient access to healthcare such as among rural underserved areas and with remote patient monitoring. The technology’s ability to reach underserved communities has exceeded expectations. Our company, Let’s Talk Interactive (LTI), deployed telehealth kiosks and portals in many Florida schools in 2019, addressing a shortage in rural mental health services by connecting students with mental health providers. LTI also partnered with the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition (NUIHC) to provide continuity of behavioral health and substance abuse care when the pandemic closed its facilities. Telehealth’s adaptability also serves populations unlikely to seek in-office care because of work hours and job culture; for example, LTI currently provides telemedicine to more than 3,500 career, volunteer, and retired firefighters in Florida’s Panhandle region.
Concerns that those low-income and rural communities lack the technology to access telehealth are proving unfounded. The Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 per year own a smartphone, as do 80 percent of those in rural areas.
Telehealth also fosters better healthcare in less obvious ways. Even before the pandemic, hospitals and insurers were piloting initiatives to discharge patients to controlled off-site environments, like hotels. This ensured patients could receive appropriate attention and monitoring outside of the hospital.
In fact, nearly all patient management plans can benefit from remote patient monitoring (RPM), a service supported by telehealth technology that can prevent condition deterioration and promote preventive engagement to encourage fitness and wellness. Management of chronic conditions also benefits from advancements in artificial intelligence, which can analyze data and alert a patient or provider to vital biometric measures. We’ll see AI much more embedded into telehealth in the near future.
Overall, telehealth technology has been shown to engage people with their providers earlier in the care cycle, which both facilitates treatment of issues before they become acute and supports improved care of chronic conditions. This is true both for younger people who are most often accustomed to online services, and geriatric patients, as demonstrated by LTI’s partnership with Arkos Health.
While telehealth is proliferating in these segments, each still offers viable possibilities for extended utilization beyond traditional parameters. Regulatory reform could extend the benefits of telehealth to millions of American workers. Currently, telehealth services provided by an employer are considered a group health plan benefit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which triggers mandates and potential penalties for employers. In early November, some 50 stakeholders joined the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) in urging Congress to make permanent the current regulatory flexibility that allows telehealth to be treated as an excepted benefit for certain employees.
With a push to increase coverage of telehealth, and greater provider and patient acceptance, telemedicine is poised to expand significantly. Billions of dollars in healthcare spending could shift to virtual and near-virtual care; McKinsey estimates the total venture capital investment into the digital health space in the first half of 2021 totaled $14.7 billion– more than in all of 2020. While the pandemic did drive that expansion, the merits of the technology look certain to drive continued growth.
Arthur Cooksey is the founder and CEO of Let’s Talk Interactive, Inc. a complete end-to-end telehealth solutions provider and recipient of Zoom Video Communications, Inc’s global inaugural Trailblazer Award.