The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic transformed telehealth from novel trend to basic necessity in a matter of months. As social distancing and lockdowns curtailed face-to-face meetings, telehealth adoption accelerated beyond the wildest dreams of pre-2020 analysts.
Two years later, telehealth is taking over and delivering convenient, quality care to patients across the country. What makes this care model so effective, and how do we know that telehealth is here to stay? Explore the factors driving telehealth adoption and consider how your practice might take advantage of upcoming trends in this care model.
What Makes Telehealth So Effective?
If telehealth delivered ho-hum results, the medical industry would’ve reverted back to mostly in-person appointments once lockdowns eased. But it didn’t; instead, physical and behavioral health providers continue to offer robust telehealth options, and consumers continue to demand them. Telehealth clearly delivers results, with several factors contributing to its success.
- A broader reach. Telehealth breaks down barriers of geography, mobility, and finances by allowing individuals to see doctors from outside their immediate area from the comfort of their own homes. Patients in rural areas can access specialists in urban areas, those with mobility issues can see a doctor regularly with minimal hassle, and routine care has become accessible for patients who can’t afford time off work to visit the office. This adds up to more patients treated more often.
- Easier care between visits. Patient portals grant access to information about self-care and healthy habits between appointments, and can also be a vehicle for reporting patient health indicators over time. Patients with access to these materials are more likely to fully engage with their treatment plan.
- Aids in acute care. Some patients seek help for an acute illness sooner if they can schedule an online visit rather than travel to a physical location. When problems are caught early, positive outcomes become more likely. This can also help with ER triage, since patients can get a doctor’s opinion online about whether their illness is an emergency. This saves unnecessary trips to the ER and keeps staff freed up for those in crisis.
- Better workflow. Online forms can gather patient information without staff having to spend time and energy collecting it up front. Not only that, the convenience of telehealth gives providers breathing room to potentially expand their hours and see more patients.
Why Telehealth is Taking Over and Here to Stay
If you thought telehealth would be a short-lived pandemic fad, think again. Research indicates that telehealth is the way forward in the healthcare industry.
The rate of telehealth usage shot up during the early months of the pandemic and has remained elevated even as safety restrictions have eased. Telehealth usage is now 38 times higher than before the pandemic. Research indicates that consumers are in no hurry to resume all face-to-face activities. A survey by Gartner revealed ambivalence among participants about when it would be safe to return to a fully “normal” life, with nearly a third of respondents answering either six months or a year, and even more—36 percent—stating they were unsure. Six percent of those surveyed chose “never.” Only 3% planned an immediate return to normal.
Gartner also found that major healthcare brands and organizations now feature telehealth prominently in their advertising, educational material, and social media activity. The industry has embraced consumers’ enthusiasm for this method of care.
Patients Want It
Patient satisfaction with virtual care is a major driver of its success A full 75 percent of patients surveyed by Gartner were “satisfied or very satisfied” with their virtual visits to healthcare providers. It’s easy to see why:
- Patients experience quicker access to care
- Online appointments demand less time from the patient’s day and reduce logistical hassles
- Patients don’t have to miss work to see a physician
- It’s easier to get specialized help in remote areas
- Staying home when sick can prevent the spread of viruses including flu, cold, COVID-19, and others
Third Parties on Board
Government entities and private investors are adjusting their approach to healthcare to reflect the new reality of telehealth. Some healthcare regulations have changed to make virtual care more accessible. Payers are increasingly willing to reimburse providers for telehealth services at the same rate as in-person services. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has expanded telehealth treatments eligible for coverage under Medicare and relaxed some of their restrictions, a decision which sets an important benchmark for private payers as well.
Investors have tremendously increased their venture capital to telehealth innovations. It’s boom time for companies developing this technology, and they’ll likely continue to increase their offerings of effective telehealth solutions.
At the same time, providers have become more adept at HIPAA compliance in the digital environment. Services offering end-to-end encryption and strong user authentication protocols have increased, along with providers’ knowledge of these safety protocols.
The Evolution of Telehealth
Despite its recent arrival on the scene, the concept of remote healthcare originated much farther back. The Lancet published an article in 1897 about the telephone’s potential for decreasing physical office visits. In 1924 Radio News Magazine ran a startlingly prescient illustration of a doctor diagnosing his patients via futuristic radio with a screen attached. During the mid-twentieth century, healthcare providers began using telephone lines, radio waves, and microwaves to transmit medical data from remote areas to hospitals and specialists. Investment in telemedicine research and the advent of the internet allowed for the development of telehealth as we know it today.
Adequate technology was not the only barrier to telehealth’s success. Patients and healthcare providers were slow to adopt this new model. Although telehealth adoption saw encouraging growth in the years before the pandemic, most doctors who used telehealth as of 2019 only conducted 1-2 virtual appointments per month.
When COVID-19 came on the scene, providers who didn’t already offer telehealth scrambled to adopt it, and many patients who had never used it were forced to overcome the learning curve. This was especially true in the field of behavioral health, which had not broadly adopted telehealth before 2020 but found itself rushing to meet the needs of distressed patients who feared in-person visits. As telehealth usage increased, so did consumer trust and satisfaction with the experience. Today, telemedicine accounts for 17 percent of claims for outpatient and office visit services.
What’s Next for Telehealth?
This method of care will only grow in popularity moving forward. The convenience and results of remote care will remain powerful motivators for patients and health providers. Telehealth is projected to enjoy a sevenfold increase by 2025 from early 2020 levels of usage.
The range of services available through virtual care will doubtless continue to expand. Potential areas of exploration include:
- Home health strategies. While some home healthcare tasks can only be completed face-to-face, others may shift to virtual consultations with no decrease in quality of service.
- Long term care facilities. Residents would not be limited to local providers willing to make on-site visits. This is of particular interest to behavioral health, which has increased its focus on serving long-term care residents in the last decade.
- Data sharing between providers. Current technology allows for unprecedented collaboration among independent providers across different fields. This trend will only continue to grow as telehealth becomes ever-more standard.
- Treatment adherence. Virtual care opens more opportunities to check in on and support patients struggling to make lifestyle or habit changes related to their health.
The Future of Telehealth for Behavioral Medicine
The behavioral health industry will utilize telehealth in order to meet increased mental health needs in the wake of the public health emergency. As more patients reach out to address new or worsening conditions like anxiety and depression, therapists and psychiatrists will see more local patients and more patients from underserved areas. Building telehealth into the workflow can assist providers in expanding hours and seeing more patients, and it provides a lifeline to those who can’t travel frequently for appointments.
The Future of Telehealth Technology
Smooth integration with EHRs is becoming a basic expectation for telehealth. Clinicians and patients dislike having to manage extra apps, portals, and screens. The range of strongly integrated telehealth platforms developed and optimized throughout the pandemic has given the industry a taste of convenient, all-in-one virtual care that doesn’t require a separate program and login.
Security and privacy are also expected from any telehealth platform. Providers are more aware of HIPAA compliance rules for virtual medicine, and more telehealth platforms than ever are offering strong security protocols.
EHRs with built-in telehealth capabilities and excellent security will be the gold standard for behavioral health providers and physicians in the post-Covid world.
The Future of Telehealth Regulations
Federal and state regulations surrounding telehealth remain the biggest question mark of the future. Regulations regarding telehealth were changed or eased in 2020 and 2021 to make virtual care more accessible as the public health emergency played out. It’s unclear how many of those changes will become permanent and how many will revert back to pre-pandemic standards once the pandemic comes under control. The answer will affect how the future of telehealth unfolds.
The American Medical Association offered its opinion on the telehealth changes implemented by Medicare that should become permanent:
- Telehealth coverage for Medicare recipients in all locations (not limited to rural locations)
- Allowance for telehealth appointments in the patient’s home rather than a designated service location
- Equal reimbursement for telehealth or face-to-face appointments
- Removal of periodic face-to-face visit requirements for behavioral health patients
Prepare for the Future with Valant
Valant’s behavioral health EHR provides everything you need for a successful telehealth experience. Our telehealth software for mental health practices platform is built in to the EHR and integrates easily with clinical notes, the scheduling calendar, and other features. We offer security must-haves like end-to-end encryption and guarantee HIPAA compliance for our telehealth users.
Contact Valant today to find out how we can help you prepare for tomorrow’s telehealth realities.