As the world reckons with COVID-19, the healthcare industry has pivoted toward telehealth services. In addition to pressures from patients and providers, recent policy changes have streamlined access to telehealth services.
During a pandemic, the appeal of virtual care is obvious: Providers can meet with more patients with less risk. Patients who need routine care and prescriptions like birth control can get it without setting foot in a doctor's office.
The question is, is the surge in telehealth temporary? Or will virtual care continue to be the norm after the pandemic ends?
Nobody can predict the future - if they could, they should've warned us about the virus. But there are plenty of reasons to think virtual care may be more than a fad. Let's start by taking a look back at the trajectory of telehealth services.
Those who follow healthcare trends will tell you: Telehealth has been the "next big thing" for some time. Half a decade ago, providers began offering virtual therapeutic services to veterans with PTSD.
Especially in mental healthcare, many offices gave patients the choice of in-person or virtual services before the pandemic existed. Approaches like talk therapy work just as well remotely, and patients often feel more comfortable in their own home.
So why didn't telemedicine catch on sooner? The primary concern was that the model might reduce quality of care. If a doctor can't be in the same room with a patient, the thinking went, could he or she get the same read on that person's condition?
Although there are still medical services that require in-person contact, of course, technology has come a long way. Videoconferencing services have improved in accessibility and quality, allowing virtual visits to accommodate more and more conditions. Whereas a doctor might have once asked a patient with a skin rash to come in for an examination, that physician might now be able to see it well enough through a screen to make a diagnosis.
The second key concern around telehealth had to do with insurance coverage. Reimbursement restrictions for telehealth services made it tough for patients to take advantage of virtual visits.
At the urging of groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, many insurers have tweaked their policies to encourage patients to use virtual services. Health insurers aren't likely to revert to their old coverages once the pandemic passes.
Trends are powerful. But what's more powerful is patients experiencing the benefits of virtual visits for themselves.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that virtual care will remain popular after the pandemic passes is that many patients are having their first brush with the model.
Although it may not feel temporary right now, the pandemic will pass. People who give virtual visits a try during it, however, will remember the advantages of telehealth the next time that they go to schedule a doctor's appointment.
This is especially true in rural areas, where there are less than 40 physicians per 100,000 people - compared to 53.3 per 100,000 in urban areas. Even patients in cities, however, are likely to appreciate that they can see a physician without leaving their living room.
Telemedicine also makes healthcare less intimidating. Talking to your doctor from your bedroom isn't nearly as scary as walking past wards with patients. That could encourage more people to seek care in the first place.
Another permanent perk of virtual visits highlighted by the pandemic is reduced risk of disease transmission. Because sick people frequent doctor's offices and hospitals, otherwise healthy people can catch serious illnesses at traditional appointments.
This isn't a rare occurrence, either: Roughly one in 20 patients contract a healthcare-associated infection, costing the system more than $35 billion per year. And because many of the patients in healthcare environments take antibiotics, many of those infections are notoriously tough to treat.
Healthcare costs are out of control for patients, insurers, and providers. Because COVID-19 requires new research and complex treatments, they're only going to rise during the pandemic.
Cost pressures will continue to push everyone to find efficiencies. On average, a virtual visit appointment costs $79, while an office visit costs $146. At twice the cost, patients and providers will struggle to justify the expense of an in-person visit for routine care.
Virtual healthcare allows for asynchronous communication, especially when the session is recorded. By reviewing the video, the patient's doctor can double-check her symptoms before making a final call. The patient can re-listen to her doctor's advice before she takes a new prescription.
Adaptability also makes personalization easier. If someone wants a hybrid system, with alternating virtual and in-person appointments, providers that embrace telemedicine can make that happen. Someone who feels more comfortable bringing a trusted friend or family member to her appointment can do that much more easily on a videoconference.
However the pandemic pans out, the reality is that some patients will still need to pay traditional visits to their doctor. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that surgeries will ever be conducted virtually. Other patients may simply prefer the in-person experience, and that's OK.
As British comedian Stephen Fry points out, elevators did not replace stairs. The same will be true of virtual visits: While they are likely to grow in popularity, both types of healthcare appointments will continue to exist. Chances are, in-person visits will simply be reserved for special requests, surgeries, and certain types of examinations.
Still, the writing is on the wall that the virus and the need to minimize contact won't be short-lived. Many experts don't expect a vaccine to be available for a year or more. In that time, more patients are likely to learn about and use virtual care.
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the advantages of a model that's already been on the rise. Agan, while nobody can predict the future, it's difficult to see virtual visits being anything but the default once the virus pandemic passes.