Industry Voices—Will remote healthcare outlast COVID-19?

Older patient using telehealth
We’ve successfully used remote care during the pandemic so far. How we deliver care in the midterm, non-acute setting will be our real trial. (Agenturfotografin/Shutterstock)

It’s been almost 120 days since the first COVID-19 patient died in China.

Humanity is addressing an exponential challenge with an exponential response. In the first 90 days, we were able to sequence the virus’s RNA, build an effective PCR test for its discovery, cut its performance time by 1,000, harness our mobile data to curb its spread and get more than 150 drug and vaccine candidates into varying stages of clinical trials.

Now, think of this virus attacking a decade ago. When text messages cost money, there was virtually no cloud computing, no bandwidth to speak of, and computation power was still prohibitively expensive.

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We would have been looking at an order of magnitude of casualties by now.

As this revolution in drug discovery and human adaptation is underway, many of the rules and regulations that hindered the growth of remote care were removed. To name a few: Medicare now reimburses remote care, physicians can practice across state lines, pharmacists can upskill and perform more clinical-grade services and more.

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Just one of these would have been a game changer.

All of them together signal a revolution underway.

This new, and for now temporary, state of regulation unleashed the power and promise of remote care. Millions of Americans are now receiving care and interacting with medical practitioners online and in full clinical utility. Over a billion virtual healthcare interactions are expected by year-end.

For the first time, the question is not, “Why do it remotely?”

It’s, “Why do it onsite?”

Will this growing remote care option survive in the post-COVID era? Will we shift what we can to remote care?

Too soon to tell. In my opinion, it mainly depends on how we act during the next stage of the crisis, the co-live with COVID era.

Emergencies often drive rapid systemic changes, but old habits die hard. As Europe and Asia slowly introduce exit strategies into the containment phase, the ambulatory and chronically ill patients who haven’t received sufficient attention during the curve-flattening phase will need to be treated.

If we fail to treat these patients remotely and necessitate that they arrive into centralized locations for care, remote care will continue to be the service point for a limited set of consultations. It will not realize its potential to safely treat some of our most vulnerable patients while dramatically easing their burden of care.

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The choices made by global healthcare leadership in the containment phase will decide whether remote care will play a growing role going forward or will be kept in the “innovation” backyard.

As we all know, chronic patient treatment is where we fail and incur the highest costs. Over the long haul, we should, therefore, shift what we can away from hospitals and clinics, all without compromising on clinical standards.

Practices that already show success and have grown during COVID-19 must be scaled further, like urine testing at home for chronically ill patients and pregnant women or Exact Sciences’ Cologuard service for people at risk for colon cancer.

By incentivizing people to self-monitor and manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension through services like Omada and Livongo and devices like Tytocare—and by allowing them to use telehealth platforms to meet with their physicians—we can keep them safe and lighten the load on healthcare systems.

We’ve successfully used remote care during the pandemic so far. How we deliver care in the midterm, non-acute setting will be our real trial.

Yonatan Adiri, is the founder and CEO of Healthy.io, the first company to receive FDA Class II approval for a smartphone-enabled urine test.

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