The COVID pandemic has drastically changed how we navigate normal life. One way in which COVID has directly impacted is access to health. With so many physical distancing restrictions in place, patients were more likely to stay home and, as a result, many struggled to gain access to healthcare facilities and vital interventions.
Telehealth has been a major player in this regard. With access to video conferencing and secure message sharing, telehealth has helped patients gain access to the medical attention they need. As we continue into post COVID times, telehealth will continue to play a vital role in Dr-patient communication and has the potential to transform the healthcare industry as a whole.
Here’s my take on this digital transformation:
Americans’ Tumultuous Relationship With Healthcare
The healthcare industry in America is notoriously rocky. In 2018, the global healthcare sector (opens in a new tab)revenue clocked in at $1.853 trillion. In 2019, Americans spent $3.65 trillion on health (17.8% of the country’s GDP). All this withstanding, roughly 27.5 million Americans (or 8.5% of the population) were uninsured and did not have access to healthcare at some point during 2018(opens in a new tab).
Even of those Americans who were insured, 1 out of 4(opens in a new tab) avoided doctor’s visits because these visits were challenging financially. “Health care costs, including the most significant stemming from an unexpected accident or illness, can inflict lasting financial damage,” says Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst with Bankrate.
And, unfortunately, until COVID struck, the healthcare system was less than capable of introducing things like telehealth for improved access to care. Other challenges for patients also include not feeling like they have been cared for, racial discrimination(opens in a new tab), disability, and trouble getting to the doctor, among so many intersectional factors(opens in a new tab). These are also referred to as social determinants of health(opens in a new tab) and COVID has also impacted these adversely.
COVID and Telehealth Enabled Access to Health For Americans
At first, many steered clear of getting medical care due to concerns over the coronavirus(opens in a new tab). However, COVID has had a greater impact on Americans’ access to health than just concerns of health. In fact, many Americans have put off seeking medical treatment even after severe COVID restrictions have ended either due to cost concerns or because they have lost their job and therefore their insurance.
Unfortunately, skipping doctor’s visits can have severe consequences(opens in a new tab). I think of mammograms, which are vital to women’s health, and skipping even one can have potential ramifications. A year of uncontrolled diabetes, blood pressure, or cholesterol can also have significant impacts(opens in a new tab).
Americans experienced cost and racial disparities in the healthcare system in the face of COVID. But telehealth actually mitigated some of these concerns. A JAMA article(opens in a new tab) highlighted that telehealth played a role in reducing the cost of ambulance rides by 18% with increases in virtual health care of 0.3%. Their findings suggested a dramatic shift in the adoption of virtual care both during and after the pandemic.
In the beginning of the pandemic, telehealth use spiked from less than 1% to as high as 80%. Now even as COVID concerns have evened out, trends for attending doctor’s visits in early 2021 remained high(opens in a new tab).
Benefits of Telehealth Post COVID
Telehealth comes with many benefits, and many of these will continue to exist even after lockdowns and physical restrictions are lifted.
Telehealth, or the ability to gain access to medical practitioners through virtual care, enables more people to seek health care. There are many reasons why people skip seeking care, such as racial discrimination, mobility concerns, financial concerns, and time commitments. Telehealth can better support people seeking health to mitigate a lot of these concerns.
While it doesn’t eliminate things like racial discrimination, it might help individuals who face racial dicrimination not have to face these emotionally challenging and dangerous situations. Perhaps they will receive better care because they are not having to confront racial disparities every time they step in the doctor’s office.
In other cases, telehealth drastically improves health access for individuals with mobility issues, disabilities, or other impediments who might have trouble getting to the doctor or who might require a whole day of travel just to show up. Instead, these individuals can gain the same, great access to health from the comfort of their home. And, in turn, doctor’s can still help as many patients—if not more—and have enough time to support biotech advancements and emerging healthcare technologies.
Not only is there their ease factor, but this improves health and wellbeing. More individuals will be happier, less confronted with the daily challenges they face, and more willing to seek health care and support. And more doctors can provide support but also have more time for critical thinking and problem solving within their practices.
Importance of Telehealth For All
Prior to the pandemic, health practitioners experienced technological, legislative, and insurance barriers to providing telehealth. And now that the COVID pandemic has redirected this focus, more providers are able to use telehealth as a primary point of care.
Telehealth has significant benefits for those who cannot access health care for ambulatory reasons (such as physical impairments) or if the need to work outweighs the need to go to a doctor’s office. In general, it opens up so many more doors for Americans to seek the health that they need.
We know that skipping doctor’s appointments can have significant risks. However, telehealth can stop this trend. We also know that doctor’s visits can also be too expensive, leading patients to skip visits altogether. Telehealth can also mitigate this and provide more cost-effective models for insurance coverage as well.
As we move into a more digitally- and technologically-focused form of healthcare, telehealth makes a lot more sense.
How Telehealth Is Transforming The Healthcare Industry In Post COVID Times
While telehealth was necessary during COVID, we can expect to see it linger. In some areas, accessing a doctor is actually not possible due to low numbers of doctors and drive times in rural counties. Telehealth can bring healthcare to so many people, no matter where they are located.
This will mean that a focus on bringing internet and online access will also be a concern. Allowing telehealth is one thing, but what is the point of it if those same people who need access to health also don’t have access to the internet?
While healthcare still exists in person, we may see so much of a shift online that too many people are lacking resources and online access is limiting their ability to seek health.
With the legacy of telehealth, we may find that physicians have a broader role in ensuring their patients can access them via telehealth. And until online access becomes universal, telehealth needs to be offered over the phone, and health care will still need to be provided in person.
As a doctor part of this change, I am proud to see that telehealth has helped so many people. I hope that more doctors embrace this change and work with their patients to ensure the appropriate access to health care is received.