Industry Voices—When the COVID-19 crisis passes, telehealth will remain

Businessman video-chats with doctor on laptop
Telehealth allows doctors and caregivers to engage in a more modern way, increasing patient engagement and improving treatment adherence, Waystar's Matt Hawkins says. (Getty/AndreyPopov)

Telehealth has seen a surge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With many healthcare providers and hospitals ceasing to provide nonemergency services in person, the demand from patients for virtual health appointments has grown.

At the same time, to accommodate the new landscape, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has relaxed some federal regulations regarding telemedicine. The numbers speak for themselves: Our company, which processes healthcare claims, saw a 50x increase in telehealth claims for April 2020 compared to a similar period last year, and telehealth volume has increased to 10% of total claims processed. That number is usually below 1%.

Healthcare facilities are making huge efforts to install the appropriate tech and provide relevant training for virtual care.

The Federal Communications Commission approved a $200 million telehealth program allowing providers to apply for up to $1 million in funding to help cover the costs of this rapid transition, including telecommunication devices, services and broadband connectivity. As a result, many healthcare organizations will come out of the crisis equipped to handle a greater telehealth volume.

Providers are already realizing the business benefits of telehealth. Patients, already used to digital convenience in just about every other part of their lives, will likely continue to embrace telemedicine for certain kinds of healthcare encounters.

With Forrester predicting virtual care visits to reach more than 1 billion by the end of 2020, we believe telehealth is here to stay, long after the current COVID-19 crisis abates.

What it means for providers

Telehealth offers many efficiencies for providers, as practice overhead and patient no-shows are significantly reduced. Before the pandemic, physicians recognized the opportunities presented by telehealth, and patients as consumers were becoming more comfortable with interacting through a screen.

Stay-at-home orders have accelerated this transition. Telehealth allows doctors and caregivers to engage in a more modern way, increasing patient engagement, improving treatment adherence and unlocking more ways for providers to help patients stay healthy.

RELATED: Payer experts: Why COVID-19 will 'fundamentally' change care delivery

There will still be work to do when healthcare facilities do open back up for nonemergent and elective care. Providers and administrators will require training and support to provide the highest quality telemedicine experience.

There will also be data security concerns to be addressed. Although many video-chat services are being used as makeshift solutions, it’s unclear whether their security practices meet healthcare industry standards for the long term.

Last but not least, many of the regulations currently relaxed for the pandemic might tighten up again, reducing payer coverage for telehealth. That said, telehealth appointments are more cost-effective and would likely incentivize payers to continue coverage for telehealth even after the acute COVID-19 outbreak passes.

What it means for patients

Telehealth also offers benefits for patients, especially in populations that lack easy access to the on-site healthcare system. Patients in rural areas or with mobility issues have probably already been taking advantage of telemedicine, and now they will have even greater choice and services at their disposal.

Even for patients in metropolitan and suburban areas, the convenience of telehealth will be a huge draw. A 15-minute drive or subway trip is long compared to taking an appointment in the next room.

Geography aside, telehealth will drastically reduce healthcare’s barrier to entry for underserved populations.

RELATED: Tech experts: Widespread adoption of telemedicine, remote monitoring 'here to stay'

Minimizing the need to take time off work will make going to the doctor a much more reasonable option for patients who lack flexibility in hours.

The overhead hospitals and facilities save by using telehealth will also be reflected in reductions in medical bills. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 25% of Americans put off important medical care because they were afraid of the cost. If telehealth leads to lower bills, it can help reduce that percentage, eventually increasing care and improving outcomes.

Moving forward after COVID-19

Globally disruptive major events come with a bevy of unforeseen consequences, and this healthcare-centric crisis is propelling us into the next phase of healthcare much faster than we foresaw.

Even before the pandemic, companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google were making significant efforts toward establishing themselves as part of America’s healthcare ecosystem. While this was not necessarily centered around telehealth, it was geared toward a new “consumerist” approach to healthcare. No one understands consumer experience expectations like these tech giants, and undoubtedly their plan was to enter into healthcare armed with this knowledge of exactly how consumers want to interact with their services.

COVID-19’s acceleration of telehealth adoption arguably puts traditional providers in a better position to anticipate some likely moves of these large consumer-facing companies—and to serve patients better and more efficiently in the long run.

Matthew Hawkins leads the Waystar team and guides the company’s strategy as CEO. In 2019, he spearheaded the landmark sale of Waystar to EQT and CPPIB, with Bain Capital retaining a minority stake in the company.

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