The future of Telehealth: From pandemic expansion to present-day adoption
The pandemic forced the widespread adoption of remote communication upon a largely ill-prepared global workforce. Areas that lacked modern advancement had to quickly adjust to the transition to an online working existence.
Schools and workplaces turned to the digital communication features on their existing applications, while friends and family deployed the social media platforms already familiar to them. The medical industry, however, saw a complete 180 turnaround, with digital surveys and virtual lobbies replacing the old reliables of pen-and-paper intake forms on clipboards and congested waiting rooms.
The rapid and exponential adoption of Telehealth was needed during lockdown to ensure everyone had access to care, but proper education and compliance has yet to emerge fully. This is all in the face of a huge surge in Telehealth use. By April 2020, Telehealth claims volumes were over 70 times higher than in February 2020. The volume of claims has since stabilized, but remained 38 times higher in February 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels.
But what exactly do we understand by the term Telehealth?
Telehealth, still a loosely defined term, encompasses three main telemedicine services:
Former face-to-face communications with a doctor can now be done online screen-to-screen or over the phone. Many consultations, follow-ups, and behavioral health visits are now carried out via synchronous care.
Commonly known as “Store-and-Forward”, examples of asynchronous care include instant messaging a provider about medication management or medical images and vitals sent between providers
Medical devices that stay with the patient allow for constant monitoring and regular data transfer from patient to doctor, with little to no communication between the two parties. A 24-hour blood pressure monitor is a typical example.
Telehealth pros and cons (seen by patients and providers)
Whether they liked it or not, life confined to home forced people to experience all that the digital medical space has to offer – the majority do not want to go back, with 60 percent of patients agreeing virtual health is more convenient than in person care.
With the use of Telehealth to supplement care, patients have received wider access to care on their own schedule, at their own convenience. Online, patients can communicate with specialists and providers anywhere in the country and at a time works for them.
Time and distance barriers that made it difficult if not impossible for those in rural areas to access care are now largely a thing of the past. Patients without a primary care physician can now avoid costly ER visits for common ailments such as sinus infections or strep throat.
Providers see many of the same benefits as their patients. Seeing patients remotely means fewer office visits and a diminished need for office space and support staff. Shorter patient visits and wait times means health care providers (HCPs) can see more patients per day and an increased earning potential.
While the sought-after benefits and flexibility of remote work can indeed now be extended to HCPs, consensus between patients and providers is not yet aligned. In a McKinsey Physician and Consumer Study, 60 percent of patients agreed that virtual health was more convenient than in-person care, while only 36 percent of physicians find it more convenient for themselves.
Patients do not plan on going back to previous standard practices; providers do not expect the current situation to last.
Technology integrations to existing work
Technology options for Telehealth are widespread and available at multiple levels.
Telehealth can be as simple as the use of Zoom for visits or as complicated as a patient portal for all aspects of care (health records, pharmacy, appointments, etc.).
Health institutions themselves must determine the appropriate level of integration for their organization: Beyond determining an initial need, an organization must determine their approach and implementation for their virtual health space.
Ensuring staff can operate the platform is one challenge, but safeguarding its efficient adoption and compliance certainly present further hurdles.
Government and regulatory implications
Widespread access to care at the height of the pandemic was understandably the top priority for governments, and the rapid expansion of Telehealth loosened regulatory restrictions.
For the past three years, COVID-19 was a declared a public health emergency (PHE), and, after multiple extensions, this PHE is expected to expire in 2023, leaving many wondering what exactly the ‘new normal’ will look like.
As the pandemic winds down and regulatory environments catch up, governments are updating policies and communicating stricter regulatory oversight. In July 2022, the Office of the Inspector General released a Special Fraud Alert to Practitioners engaging in business with Telemedicine Companies, warning of potential violations of Anti-Kickback statue and False Claims Act.
In September 2022, the Health Resources & Services Administration released a Draft Policy Information Notice with criteria and considerations for health centers providing Telehealth services.
Beyond warnings from federal organizations, individual state requirements and restrictions will be determined both those elected in upcoming midterms.
Beyond changing reimbursement models, interstate licensure challenges and medical collaboration requirements, data privacy and confidentiality present additional hurdles for proper Telehealth compliance.
The importance of education in telehealth
In the context of the emerging ‘new normal’, understanding regulation and compliance in relation to your organization’s use of Telehealth is more important than ever.
Incorporating compliance and regulation into technical trainings of Telehealth will smooth HCPs’ transition into the digital health space and assist in generating a practical understanding of accompanying compliance mechanisms.
In the context of ongoing regulatory contractions affecting the Telehealth space, educating patients to understand the legal scope and current capabilities of Telehealth will ensure both parties’ expectations are aligned and avoid any conflicts of interest.
Now is the time to stay ahead of the regulatory change to instill a culture of compliance so that your organization can ethically grow with the future of Telehealth.