Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person care was the primary healthcare delivery model in the United States. But rising COVID-19 infection rates required healthcare providers to transition to virtual care.
This industry-wide transition has spurred a massive increase in telehealth claims. According to Definitive Healthcare data, 2020 telehealth claims are almost 18 times higher than they were in 2019. The rapid adoption of telehealth technologies raises several important questions:
- Why has it taken so long for the healthcare industry to move forward with telehealth?
- How has telehealth changed physicians’ day-to-day workflows?
- Will telehealth regulations change after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides?
Definitive Healthcare hosted a panel discussion to address these questions and more. The panel featured both provider and non-provider experts, including:
- Afshan Ali, Division Vice President of Telehealth at Jackson & Coker
- Dr. Elisha Yaghmai, President and CEO of FreeState Healthcare
- Dr. Davin Lundquist, Chief Medical Officer at Augmedix
The panelists discussed how COVID-19 has spurred telehealth adoption, and how the industry is adapting. Here are some of their insights.
How has telehealth changed physicians’ day-to-day workflow?
All three panelists agreed that flexibility is the biggest change in physicians’ daily workflows. Telehealth gives doctors the freedom to work from home on a full-time or part-time basis. In some cases, physicians might also gain more flexibility in patient scheduling.
Flexibility also means that physicians are learning how to adapt to a new set of challenges. Afshan Ali said that many of her clients at Jackson & Coker are managing their own technical support during virtual care visits. Healthcare providers are now responsible for troubleshooting technology. This is a contrast to what providers are accustomed to during in-person visits.
Telehealth has introduced other responsibilities for healthcare providers, as well. These include:
- Checking in patients
- Verifying patient identities
- Assisting with user experience, and
- Directing patients to the virtual waiting room
Technical support of this kind is a new obstacle for many physicians. But with regular telehealth use, providers are navigating these challenges with more confidence.
Some healthcare providers are finding their own creative solutions to technology challenges. Dr. Lundquist of Augmedix mentioned a technique that a colleague of his uses. This colleague holds up a large arrow on paper while videoconferencing with patients. The physician uses this paper to help patients find controls, like an audio button.
This inventiveness helps patients and providers adapt to their new virtual care setting.
What were some challenges with telehealth adoption before COVID-19?
Telehealth use before COVID-19 was limited, but not absent. In 2014, FreeState Healthcare began using telehealth to improve healthcare access in Kansas. Dr. Yaghmai outlined two major obstacles that FreeState Healthcare faced:
- Lack of support from healthcare payers, and
- Lack of consumer awareness
Some payers worried that improving healthcare access through telehealth might increase healthcare utilization. For healthcare payers, increased utilization means they will be billed for more services. This costs them more money in the short-term.
Telehealth was not widely used at the time. Because of this, most patients were not aware that virtual care was an available option. With so few providers endorsing telehealth, many patients questioned its benefits. Why a virtual visit with their doctor would be better than an in-person one?
Will telehealth regulations change when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides?
Many regulations were temporarily expanded to encourage telehealth use during the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes include:
- HIPAA flexibility during COVID-19
- Telehealth waivers from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
- Cost-sharing for patients in federal health care programs
- Billing and reimbursement for telehealth services
These temporary regulatory changes have allowed healthcare providers to deliver safe, virtual care. No one knows how these policies might change after the pandemic has ended. But all three panelists agreed that some of these changes are unlikely to be reversed.
Seema Verma, the head of CMS, has publicly voiced her support for expanded telehealth access after COVID-19. Dr. Yaghmai referenced these public comments. He noted that healthcare systems have already adopted telehealth. Health systems have also adjusted their business and staffing models during the pandemic.
Because of these changes, health systems are unlikely to pull back on telehealth after investing so much time and money in the technology. With this in mind, it’s possible that many of the regulatory changes will become permanent.
Before the pandemic, providers and policymakers were also uncertain about the cost benefits of virtual care. The pandemic has created an opportunity to test out this technology.
“[Telehealth] is saving a lot of money in the healthcare space,” said Dr. Lundquist. The convenience of telehealth helps to reduce physician burnout and control overhead costs.
Clinical outcomes of virtual care are still unconfirmed. But the pandemic has proven that it is possible to successfully deliver care in this way.
Interested in learning more about how COVID-19 has affected telehealth adoption in 2020? Take a look at our webinar: Examining the COVID-Driven Rise of Telehealth with Claims. In this 15-minute presentation, Definitive Healthcare data scientists use medical claims to explore:
- Trends in the digital expansion of healthcare
- What this means for organizations that serve healthcare providers, and
- How current regulations might impact continued growth in tech-enabled care