According to research from Optum, 93% of medical professionals plan to continue leveraging telehealth as one method for care delivery in the wake of the pandemic. However, at present, telehealth usage has dipped a bit since worldwide lockdowns were in full effect.
Despite telehealth use still being higher than it was before the pandemic, it hasn’t lived up to the market expectations.
The factors that have contributed to this lack of growth include market saturation and customers’ growing willingness to seek medical attention in person now that concerns about COVID transmission have tapered a bit.
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and The SCAN Foundation found only 52% of surveyed adults predict they’ll still rely on telehealth now that COVID restrictions have formally been lifted.
However, the convenience and accessibility of telehealth ensure this mode of care delivery will stick around for the long-term in some capacity.
When the pandemic first hit (and for nearly a year after), access to primary care, virtual urgent care visits, and transitional care received a lot of attention.
Telehealth was considered the safest and most effective means for providing care that didn’t require diagnostic testing, lab work, or direct physical contact.
This strategy mainly supports the kind of care that can be given episodically or intermittently for health issues including fevers, rashes, allergies, and other similar issues.
Telehealth became especially instrumental in serving the needs of patients with mental health conditions: at its peak, telehealth represented 40% of mental health and substance use outpatient visits.
Overall, telehealth visits for outpatient care surged 78 times higher between February 2020 to April 2020.
The mandatory lockdowns spurred on by the pandemic created three necessary conditions under which telehealth thrived:
- Increased consumer willingness to use telehealth
- Increased provider willingness to use telehealth
- Regulatory changes enabling greater telehealth access and reimbursement
These three factors contributed to what many experts believed would be a permanent shift to telehealth.
However, while telehealth proved useful in managing specific episodic conditions that don’t require diagnostic testing or physical contact, providers failed to make the case for telehealth across a variety of other common conditions.
As a result, telehealth usage ultimately dropped significantly after mandatory lockdowns were lifted. Today, only 16% of adults over 50 believe they’ll continue using telehealth now that stringent restrictions have ended.
Incidentally, this population is more likely than others to suffer from chronic conditions. These survey results show providers and telehealth vendors have failed to prove the case for leveraging telehealth to perform outpatient visits for chronic care management.
Chronic illnesses require consistent interaction over long periods of time. Additionally, they necessitate several touchpoints and in-depth data for holistic, accurate treatment.
Continuity of care is key for improving health outcomes for any patient population, but especially for those with chronic conditions. One Health Quality Ontario study review found a strong correlation between continuity of care and a reduction in hospitalizations and emergency department visits among patients with a variety of chronic conditions.
Telehealth could be a crucial tool in aiding chronic care management, offering crucial health education. This method of care delivery could serve as a link to keep patients in contact with their providers long term.
When patients are linked with a long-term provider or care team, they’re more likely to maintain ongoing interactions, leverage patient monitoring technology, and engage in adverse health prevention methods.
To prevent disease rather than just improve care management, patients and providers must advocate for a more preventative, holistic approach to care delivery.
Telehealth could be a useful tool for checking in on patients in a variety of circumstances, including:
- Follow-up appointments in which patients discuss a new diet, medications changes, or other recent adjustments to their care plan
- Check-ins for patients with certain cancers, rheumatological diseases, diabetes, migraines, high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions
- Behavioral healthcare and therapy appointments
- Nutrition and fitness counseling
- Follow-up appointments discussing test and imaging results
- Tutorials explaining how patients can use remote patient monitoring devices
However, rather than exploring these alternate use cases for telemedicine, telehealth vendors often focused primarily on the few situations that do not require in-person examinations.
Telehealth firms have not developed the capability to offer services for the complete patient journey, including chronic care management, diagnosis, and treatment.
Additionally, telehealth lacks the retention or usage rates necessary to provide care for those with chronic conditions who urgently require ongoing care access. Many of the people who stand to gain the most from telehealth have not yet had the opportunity to leverage the medium.
Specifically, those living in rural areas who lack access to a major hospital or health system could benefit significantly from frequent telehealth check-ins with long-term care providers.
Providers and telehealth vendors need to make a concerted effort to advocate for the use of telehealth in treatment plans for patients with chronic conditions to popularize the medium in the wake of worldwide lockdowns.
Future of Telehealth
Telehealth will continue to expand if it becomes most helpful for patients who need frequent check-ins.
This assumes that telehealth services support or are incorporated into the entire patient journey, which includes diagnosis, treatment, management, and maintenance.
Healthcare can be transformed by telehealth as a component of digital health, but by itself, it is only one step in the patient care process.
Thus far, providers and telehealth vendors have made significant promises about the potential value of the medium without tackling the largest problems of today’s healthcare system.
Real transformation will start to happen when experts start addressing these problems and developing solutions that can integrate whole-person care.
Rather than striving to revert the healthcare system back to what it was before the pandemic, patients and providers should embrace the changes that came with this cultural shift.
Even if telehealth usage declines and most patients continue to opt for in-person care, the conversation about telehealth’s benefits for patients with chronic conditions, underserved populations, and patients in rural areas will continue.
Medistics empowers clinical care teams to deliver personalized, preventative care to patients with chronic conditions. The Medistics Care Management Platform is designed to simplify the patient experience at every step of the care journey to improve patient health outcomes.
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