The Future of Telehealth

As everyone knows, COVID drove a spike in telehealth usage and put the future of telehealth in a brief spotlight. Video consultations and other virtual care services made medical attention more accessible and convenient. But telehealth usage has now declined. So what is the future of telehealth now?

Telehealth Benefits

Telehealth comes with numerous benefits for both providers and patients:

  • Expanded access to care
  • Reduced patient costs
  • Increased practice efficiency in workflow
  • In some cases, more patient engagement with remote monitoring

In particular, primary care and behavioral health practices found a good match with telehealth. They were quick to adapt their operations to meet the needs of patients during the pandemic with virtual care and, in some cases, remote monitoring. 

Telehealth Usage Growth (During Pandemic + Use Continuing After)

  • CDC studies found telehealth visits represented over 35% of all visits in June of 2020 and that “Telehealth visits declined as the number of new COVID-19 cases decreased but plateaued as the number of cases increased.”
  • Meg Barron, vice president of digital innovation at the American Medical Association (AMA) shared that the percentage of primary care physicians offering telehealth services doubled between 2016 and 2019 – from 14% to 28%. Although the use of telehealth services has dropped off post-pandemic, more practices and patients plan to continue using and expanding virtual services going forward. 
  • A report from McKinsey says that telehealth usage is now 38 times higher than before the pandemic.
  • Hospitals and physicians are carefully monitoring patient expectations for telehealth. In a hospital study by the Center for Connected Medicine, “ninety-two percent of participants said their organizations are measuring and analyzing use of telehealth by patients”.  
  • The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has cited changes made as a result of the pandemic that they believe should remain after the pandemic is officially declared “over.”
    • HIPAA flexibility
    • Medicare and Medicaid policy changes
    • Licensure requirements
    • Prescribing of controlled substances

Telehealth Usage Decline/ Leveling Off

  • A new survey from KLAS Research and the Center for Connected Medicine indicates a leveling off of telehealth patient visits at 20% or less. 
  • A recent study in Telemedicine and e-Health indicates that even Gen Z patients believe the effectiveness of telehealth is limited to issues like mental health, colds, flus, etc. Also that almost 50% didn’t feel that virtual consultations were as effective as in-person visits. 

The Future of Telehealth Now?

The push and pull between traditional visits and telehealth is not resolved. Many patients want to have telehealth as an option, especially for primary care and behavioral health. They got used to telehealth services during the past year and are now frustrated to find them not available. But two large barriers are limiting the future of telehealth, at least in the short term. 

  • Many states limit the use of telehealth across state lines with licensing restrictions. KHN points out that aside from being a source of state income, “State medical boards don’t want to cede authority, saying their power to license and discipline medical professionals boosts patient safety.” 
  • The McKinsey survey and others indicate that many physicians are not willing to provide telehealth services at a lower rate than in-person services. But CMS and other payers have indicated that they expect lower rates. 

If patient preferences and needs prevail, these factors will eventually be addressed. In the meantime, expect to continue to see a patchwork of telehealth services, depending on your state and payer.