Written by Kaarina Zhao
Broadly speaking, telehealth refers to the delivery and facilitation of health and health related services via telecommunication technologies. Within telehealth, according to Oxford, telemedicine refers to the “remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology”. Telemedicine includes live video conferencing doctor appointments, mobile health apps to connect to healthcare providers, etc. Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has seen a meteoric rise in adoption and use. The US Department of Health and Human Services 2020 report found that telehealth Medicare primary care visits grew from less than a percent in February to almost 50 percent in April this year. Given the increasing prevalence of telehealth around not only the US but globally, the increasing question becomes—is telehealth permanently part of our future? Or if not completely, what parts of telehealth will continue to leave its footprint?
Rapid technological adoption
Current telehealth use has revealed the benefits of technological influence in healthcare, which is expected to drive continued telehealth use post-pandemic. This year, TytoCare received $50M in fresh funding to grow its telehealth-connected stethoscope, infrared thermometer and otoscope. In fact, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, recent practitioner surveys revealed strong interest in post-pandemic telehealth use among health care providers. With innovation and functionality improvements, telehealth tools will increasingly become better options for treating a range of conditions, long after COVID-19 dies down.
Relaxed regulatory barriers
Since COVID-19’s onset, multiple provisions have relaxed this has encouraged the use of telehealth. Previously, Medicare regulations restricted telemedicine to rural patients and former or established, however under current waivers, telehealth can now be provided to patients in any location and can also be provided to new patients. Recently, the DEA relaxed regulations and now permit physicians to prescribe controlled substances during a telemedicine visit during the pandemic. Favorable regulations are expected to further drive telehealth’s prevalence post-pandemic.
Fundamental use cases
Telehealth has a broad range of use cases that are certainly here to stay including—increased health access across rural areas, increased safety for autoimmune impacted patients, increased efficiency, and increased remote-based training. In fact, a Stern junior who has experienced videoconferencing doctor visits during the pandemic commented that “I definitely see the advantage in its convenience especially for people in rural areas”. Additionally, for autoimmune impacted patients who might not be safe visiting waiting rooms across hospitals, telemedicine offers a safer and more convenient way to perform checkups or consult with the doctor. Finally, telehealth increases efficiency by optimizing doctor and patient time, reduces costs—as the average telemedicine consult is $70 cheaper than an in-person visit and approximately $1000 cheaper than a hospital visit and allows for faster electronic results and diagnosis communication.
Overall, telehealth is seeing a promising path towards integrating into our everyday lives through its increased adoption, favorable regulations, and both versatile and significant use cases. As such, telehealth generally looks here to stay—benefiting sizeably from COVID and remaining important after the pandemic subsides. As it increases in influence, greater questions arise regarding the technologies data security and greater protections should be put in place to ensure data security and healthcare privacy moving forward.