To say that Americans are anxiously awaiting the end of the COVID-19 pandemic would be an understatement. But for patients who have enjoyed the ease of attending doctor’s appointments virtually, a return to the way things were pre-pandemic might be bittersweet.
That’s because onerous restrictions on telemedicine, which lawmakers relaxed when COVID-19 hit, could be reinstated once officials declare the public health emergency over.
Fortunately, Congress may not let that happen. Several pieces of legislation are pending that would permanently loosen restrictions on telehealth and ensure that healthcare providers are paid adequately for providing virtual care.
Those are good ideas. Telehealth is a proven way to improve patient access to care and to lower overall health costs.
Before the pandemic, telemedicine was hamstrung by a mess of bureaucratic red tape. A patchwork of state regulations prohibited patients from scheduling a virtual visit with a doctor across state lines. Medicare only reimbursed telehealth services for patients living in rural areas. Medicare beneficiaries who wanted to use telehealth had to travel to a designated medical facility to do so.
Unsurprisingly, telehealth appointments accounted for less than 1% of all outpatient visits prior to the start of the pandemic.
But when authorities lifted telehealth restrictions, people began logging on in droves. Telehealth use was 78 times higher in April 2020 than it was in February 2020, the month before the pandemic began.
Many patients have since returned to the doctor’s office for care. But telemedicine utilization has held steady above pre-pandemic levels. A new Kaiser Family Foundation study found that roughly one in ten outpatient appointments were virtual between March and August 2021.
The virtual care revolution doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Roughly 80% of people who used telehealth during the pandemic said they were satisfied with the care they received, according to one survey conducted last year. Nearly 90% of patients report wanting to use telemedicine for non-urgent appointments after the pandemic ends.
That’s because telemedicine makes accessing care more convenient. A telehealth appointment can be conducted in a patient’s living room, on a lunch break, or even via a phone call in the car. And virtual visits usually last less than 15 minutes.
The average in-person doctor’s appointment often involves taking time off work, driving more than an hour round trip–assuming they have a car or access to a driver—and spending more than 10 minutes in a waiting room. This commitment costs patients $89 billion annually in lost time and wages.
The convenience of telehealth is particularly important for Americans living in rural areas, who often have to travel even further to access care. It’s potentially lifesaving for the 3.6 million Americans who postpone medical care every year because they don’t have transportation to their doctor’s office.
Considering the ease with which patients can talk to their doctor online, it’s no surprise that telehealth improves health outcomes. A recent study from the University of Texas found that using telemedicine to provide care to children with complex chronic conditions reduced serious illness and visits to the hospital and emergency room.
Telemedicine also saves people money. A patient with a respiratory infection can expect to pay $79 for a telehealth visit, compared to $146 for a visit to a physician’s office.
Private companies are taking notice of these benefits. Last year, Walmart bought telehealth provider MeMD and announced plans to offer virtual primary care, urgent care, and behavioral health appointments nationwide. Amazon just announced that it was expanding its virtual care services nationwide this year.
Without action, the state and federal waivers that have enabled nearly unfettered access to telemedicine throughout the pandemic could expire—leaving patients without access to this method of care.
That would be as nonsensical now as it was before the pandemic. It’s time to make telehealth a permanent fixture of our healthcare system.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.