Telehealth booms amid COVID-19 crisis; virtual care is here to stay

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Demand for telehealth systems has boomed in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, setting the stage for telemedicine to finally achieve at least some of its long-promised benefits. And analysts expect widespread use to continue even after the current crisis abates.

The coronavirus outbreak and killed nearly 200,000 (including more than 50,00 in the U.S. alone) will “forever change the way consumers seek and receive healthcare,” said Arielle Trzcinski, a senior analyst at Forrester. 

“While the pandemic will prove the value of virtual care in a crisis, it will also demonstrate the effectiveness for ongoing chronic care management,” she said. “This moment will have a lasting effect on the adoption of virtual care and accelerate the shift from in-person care to virtual first engagement for multiple conditions and use cases.”

Telehealth broadly involves the remote provision of healthcare between doctors and patients, most often by way of video consultations, though it can also be used for teleradiology and remote patient monitoring.

Use of telehealth applications has been , though adoption has varied across different organizations. As of January, only 24% of U.S. healthcare organizations had a virtual care program in place, according to Forrester. 

That’s changed rapidly in recent months as COVID-19 spread, forcing people to avoid doctors’ offices, hospitals, medical clinics – and, of course, the workplace. Into the resulting gap, telehealth companies have moved to enable doctors to connect with their patients remotely.

in the platform that .

For Amwell, a telehealth software vendor, the recent surge meant a 2,000% increase in visits on its platform as demand for virtual consultations surged. The rapid uptick in demand meant Amwell had to work with its customers deploy its software much faster than normal.

“Normally, we spend two to four months deploying and implementing a system for a health system; there’s lots of integration, we want to be embedded in their EHR [electronic health record systems], etc.,” said Mike Baird, president for customer solutions at Amwell.  

“Obviously we didn’t have time for that in this crisis, and so we had an offering that we could literally stand up in three or four days,” Baird said.

and Microsoft’s Skype as a temporary means of connecting doctors and patients.

“When you have major health plans and insurance companies embrace and enable coverage for telehealth or other things of that nature, that’s definitely helped,” said Ruppar. 

“The most significant impact is from [the] expansion of payment from CMS for telehealth, including for new patient use,” he said. “The HIPAA relaxation on platform selection does help as well, especially for practices which did not deploy telehealth, [allowing practices to] still conduct business and patient care.”

While it is likely that some of the rule changes, such as those involving HIPAA enforcement, will be pulled back when the current crisis ends, could remain in place.

“The government has moved very rapidly to pull down any remaining regulatory [barriers] that were slowing telehealth down,” said Baird.

“We’d like to see that continue and we hope that it will,” he said. “Now that people have seen [telehealth’s] effectiveness, they’ve seen that it can treat patients, I think most legislators will be hard-pressed to give justifications for rolling all of that back.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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