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Dr. Mark Kestner, Chief Innovation Officer of Mediguru, is a seasoned executive with experience in military leadership, higher education, and community-based healthcare systems. He joined Mediguru during the COVID-19 pandemic and helped innovate accessible and secure telehealth options.
We live in a connected world. We can utilize the internet in most areas of our life, from ordering food, reserving airline tickets, and keeping in touch with friends and family. It was only a matter of time before the connectivity and ease-of-use of wireless communication and videoconferencing made their way to healthcare.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased the use of telehealth across the board. The shutdown forced people home and away from their doctor’s offices and regular visits. The clear benefits of telehealth have assisted its widespread popularity, especially since the pandemic upended everything.
Related: Illinois Expands Telehealth Services Amid Coronavirus
From an accessibility standpoint, you can’t beat telehealth. A substantial majority of people are comfortable with technology like video conferencing and have no issue adapting to that technology for healthcare visits or quick check-ins with their providers.
Similarly, providers see the accessibility benefits. According to the American Hospital Association, 76 percent of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of video and other technology. With both Medicare and state Medicaids offering some level of coverage for telehealth, it’s become the go-to alternative to in-person visits during the pandemic. Telehealth stands to continue its rise in popularity post-COVID as well.
Companies that provide telehealth services, like Mediguru, are placing a strong emphasis on security and HIPAA compliance, which put both patient and provider at ease concerning information they want to protect. Providers utilize platforms such as Zoom, Webex, and Skype, and companies are stepping up to adapt those platforms to healthcare, making them more secure.
Improving technology makes telehealth more accessible and easier to implement than in the past. Providers use a variety of methods to bring telehealth capabilities to their patients. These include mobile apps or access via a site such as MyChart. It benefits providers to make the process easy, eliminating complicated software or app downloads or multiple click-thrus to get to a person.
Telehealth saves time; this benefit is clear. Instead of having to drive to a doctor’s office, wait to be called, and then wait again once you reach the exam room, patients can see your doctor “face-to-face” virtually when it’s convenient for both parties. In most cases, patients do not need to arrange for childcare or even leave work for visits, which saves not only time but money for the patient as well.
When it comes to healthcare information, security is always a concern. The last thing patients want is their private healthcare information revealed to the internet or blasted across social media platforms. This could be a hesitation point for some patients and physicians who may not fully understand security technology.
Today, telehealth providers and software/program developers are making security and information safety a top priority. The new programs integrate with electronic healthcare records and are thoroughly HIPAA compliant. Companies work to make integration with existing technology an office may be using seamless, so bringing telehealth into play isn’t a burden on the already busy physician and his staff.
It could be easy to assume that in-person visits would always be superior to a telehealth visit, but that may not be the case. For one, telehealth visits allow practitioners to see a patient in their home environment. Where a patient lives and how they are living has a significant bearing on their health. This can be especially useful for medical professionals such as allergists, who may be able to observe that you are living where mold may be present or with a shedding animal. It can also be beneficial for mental health professionals to meet patients where they are, especially if that patient has an episode that is making getting up and leaving the house difficult.
When it comes to providing healthcare for patients who may experience mobility issues or have a family member as power of attorney for healthcare, telemedicine can provide easier access to physicians and involve other parties who have a stake in the patient’s healthcare needs.
The benefit is also evident for people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, who may need to see their physician regularly for quick check-ins on their medication dosing or progress towards condition stabilization. While an in-person visit could eat up half a day for just a quick once-over, a telehealth visit saves both patient and physician time.
Keeping people healthy is beneficial for everyone, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. Allowing people to use telehealth has dramatically reduced the risk of virus transmission. According to the CDC, an estimated 41% to 42% of U.S. adults reported having delayed or avoided seeking care during the pandemic because of concerns about COVID-19, including 12% who reported having avoided seeking urgent or emergency care. This avoidance of waiting rooms for fear of catching something does not help health outcomes overall, especially in emergencies.
With COVID raging, telehealth stepped in to allow people continued access to urgent care and regular visits.
Telehealth can come at cost savings for patients, depending on the nature of their visit. According to a study by Health Affairs (2017), several factors come into play when discussing the overall cost of telehealth from the patient’s side. Per the study, on average, a telehealth visit costs about $79, while an office visit’s average cost is $146. However, the study also found that the availability of telehealth leads people to seek care for minor issues they may have otherwise ignored, which can increase costs for the patient.
Through the pandemic, many insurers such as Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield waived copays for telehealth visits to encourage patients to choose this option that allowed them to distance themselves.
The government also got involved in providing funds for greater telehealth utilization. The Covid-19 Telehealth Program allocated $200 million to help physicians integrate telehealth visits into their offerings. The administration also earmarked additional funding through a Covid relief package specifically for helping rural areas gain access to telehealth. Government initiatives also expanded broadband access and 5G access, allowing more people to take advantage of telehealth visits.
Related: Illinois Ramps Up Fight Against Opioid Epidemic with Expansion of Telehealth Services
Wider adoption of telehealth does not mean that it’s always been smooth sailing. There have been definite barriers to getting some patients on board, especially in rural communities or older patients who may not have the technical acumen to navigate virtual visits.
Physicians and telehealth companies continue to address the issue of lacking tech skills. Telehealth can be challenging to use if the patient doesn’t understand how to access the application or navigate the program. This issue can be connected to age-related barriers, as older adults are less likely to have familiarity with new technology. Because this age group could see some of the greatest benefits from telehealth, it behooves telemedicine software companies to find a way to bridge this gap in understanding. By integrating “one-click” access to a system or allowing access without needing a patient to download new software or an app, companies are addressing the issue of a lack of tech skills.
Another barrier may be broadband access in rural areas of the United States. This issue was addressed in many of the Covid-19 rescue plans, but it is an issue that persists. According to the FCC, a digital divide still exists in America. Those who could most benefit from telehealth visits, the rural poor, are largely still without access to high-speed internet. Broadband access is quickly becoming a necessity akin to lights and heat in today’s ultra-connected world.
Initiatives have been introduced to increase broadband access in the U.S., most notably the FCC’s $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity fund. With greater high-speed internet access, telehealth is bound to grow in utilization.
There’s no denying that as companies make more technological advances, healthcare will start to drift more and more to virtual options. Innovators will need to continue to be ahead of the curve to serve patients and physicians with the most up-to-date options that provide security, uninterrupted access, and easy-to-use telehealth options.
The Covid-19 pandemic significantly increased telehealth usage, but it was in place before Covid and will continue to be an option after the worst of the pandemic is passed. While we still wrestle with everything the virus has changed and continues to change, perhaps the nation can look at advances in telehealth as a small silver lining to what has been a very challenging year and a half. With increased attention paid to telehealth’s benefits, more money will be allotted to continue advances in technology and accessibility for more patients.