The arrival of COVID-19 turned the world upside down, with the first wave of impact most heavily felt in the healthcare field. Hospitals and health systems around the globe rushed to meet the challenge and overcome adversity as coronavirus took over the operational controls. Where urgent care and ICU capacity surged, elective procedures and regular doctor visits came to an abrupt halt. Telemedicine quickly surfaced as a necessary, albeit partial, solution.
The Pivot to Telemedicine
For its immediate, seemingly overnight emergence on the healthcare scene, the birth of telemedicine in in the United States actually dates back to 1940. This was the first time that a medical record and images were sent via a phone line between two locations in Pennsylvania.
Almost 20 years later, a university in the Midwest began to use video in its clinical practice. From there telemedicine found a home in rural healthcare by using microwave technology, and ultimately in the physicians’ office for specialty consultations. Still, prior to COVID-19, few patients were aware of or interested in the option.
A survey by Sage Growth Partners and Black Book Market Research found that only 25 percent of Americans had used a telemedicine service before 2020. Post coronavirus, 59 percent say they are more likely to use the service, with 36 percent saying they would switch providers to have a virtual care option. More than 45 percent noted that they would also like greater access to mental health care via remote technologies.
Telemedicine Technologies on the Rise
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidance on the expanded use of telemedicine “as a way to deliver acute, chronic, primary and specialty care” and “improve patient health outcomes.” As such, the organization outlined three modalities that providers can use to facilitate care:
- Synchronous telemedicine in real time over the telephone or on a video chat.
- Asynchronous telemedicine through patient portals that allow for secure two-way messaging and the sharing of reports, images and other data.
- Remote patient monitoring via wearable devices and interactive measurement tools that report vital signs and key metrics to a care provider.
Not surprisingly, a huge market for telemedicine technologies has materialized. Software review company, Capterra, part of the Gartner Group, lists 160 different telemedicine software products on its website. Healthcare practices can search and choose based on features like HIPPA compliance, video conferencing, secure messaging and more.
The Benefits of Telemedicine
Both patients and providers can benefit from telemedicine as a safe and secure option during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. The CDC provides a list of several potential uses, including but not limited to, the following:
Benefits for Patients
- Beyond sheer convenience, telemedicine improves accessibility for patients in rural areas, patients without transportation, and patients with mobility issues.
- Patients with chronic physical conditions can stay on schedule with their regular visits and receive nutritional counseling, medication management support and more.
- Patients receiving mental health services can maintain their schedule of care through virtual visits with their psychiatrists and psychologists.
Benefits for Providers
- Providers have the opportunity to screen patients for COVID-19 without risking an in-person visit and potential transmission.
- Providers can monitor vital signs and intervene as necessary for patients with high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions.
- Providers can follow up with their patients after hospitalization to help avoid the risk of readmission.
A Permanent Change of Practice
Many regulatory barriers in the United States were lowered to facilitate the use of telemedicine as COVID-19 surged. The American Medical Association (AMA) is advocating for those policy changes to remain permanent. There will be congressional hearings to decide on the viability of sustaining the emergency measures that were put into place.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is also proposing permanent expansion of virtual services for their beneficiaries as part of a larger effort to modernize the organization. CMS began paying for virtual check-ins in 2019, with approximately 14,000 patients per week taking part in remote appointments. When CMS temporarily allowed 80 different services to be conducted virtually due to COVID-19, 10+ million beneficiaries received a telemedicine visit between mid-March and early-July of 2020.
According to InTouch Health, private insurance companies are finding value in moving toward a “digital first” model of care as well. Cost reduction is a key goal as companies offer incentives to providers to increase telemedicine services via their practice. Other objectives include fewer emergency room visits and better overall patient care.
Projections for the Future of Telemedicine Services
Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan recently conducted a study titled “Telehealth: A Technology-Based Weapon in the War Against the Coronavirus, 2020.” Findings from this study suggest that use of telemedicine services will increase by more than 64 percent in the United States, this year alone. The firm also estimates an annual growth rate of 38.2 percent through 2025.
An article in Medical Economics provides additional projections including market valuation of $185.6 billion by 2026. Reasons for the explosive growth forecasts are many, with efficiency being a key driver. It is estimated that a telemedicine appointment saves patients an average of 100 minutes over an in-person visit. It is also believed that patients are more likely to comply with provider advice and keep their scheduled visits when offered virtually.
Taking this vision one step further, medical equipment and technology provider Philips sees telemedicine as a fundamental part of the healthcare model of tomorrow. A model where hospitals are connected with patients, community care sites and mobile providers across an integrated digital infrastructure – with virtual care being the lynchpin.
Leading During a Time of Transformation
Healthcare professionals have a historic opportunity to drive change over the next few years. As theory becomes practice, telemedicine and digital connectivity will evolve in new and exciting ways. If you are ready to advance the future as a leader in the field, consider taking the next step forward with an online Executive Master of Health Administration degree.