Telehealth is a rare good thing to come from the pandemic. Let’s make it permanent

It’s time for your annual physical. You make an appointment with your doctor and mark the date on your calendar.

But when the day arrives, you don’t set aside two to three hours or wait for a nurse to call your name in a sterile doctor’s office. You log onto your laptop from the comfort of your living room. The process takes less than 30 minutes.

For many Americans, this was a reality amid the pandemic, when lots of care was delivered virtually — thanks to lawmakers’ temporary relaxation of several restrictions on telehealth.

Telehealth proved popular among patients and physicians. Permanently lifting those restrictions — as many state and federal lawmakers are now trying to do — would increase Americans’ access to health care and lower costs without sacrificing the quality.

In March 2020, Congress permitted the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to loosen federal restrictions on telehealth and expand patient access to care.

These expansions included waiving the requirement that patients travel to a care site to use telehealth, allowing patients to receive services wherever they are. HHS also expanded the types of devices permitted for telehealth use to include phones, laptops, and platforms such as Skype or FaceTime.

The use of telehealth skyrocketed. A study of 36 million patients found that telehealth visits accounted for a quarter of all medical visits during the first four months of the pandemic, compared to just 0.3% of visits over that same period in 2019.

Telehealth also gained widespread support. A survey from the Harris Poll found 82% of respondents who used telehealth services either “love” or “like” them.

Doctors also support telehealth. A survey of more than 1,000 health care organizations found that over 75% of physician respondents said telehealth allowed them to provide quality care to patients.

Telehealth has won such support for several reasons. First, it expands access to care. An average in-person doctor’s appointment takes up two hours of patients’ time, once waits and travel are accounted for, while telehealth calls last around 15 minutes.

Telehealth appointments are more convenient. Nearly 6 million people delayed care in 2017 because they lacked transportation. The need for convenient care is greater now, since millions of Americans postponed doctor’s visits during the pandemic.

That added convenience is meaningful for Ohio patients. More than 1.7 million residents live in places with limited access to primary care doctors. Virtual physician visits would make those geographic barriers irrelevant. Indeed, an analysis from the Columbus-based Buckeye Institute concluded that greater telehealth access would make rural patients “more likely to seek care when they need it, rather than forego care and allow conditions to worsen.”

Second, telehealth saves patients money. A 2018 study found that the average telemedicine visit resulted in net cost savings between $19 and $121 per visit. Third, research shows that the quality of virtual care isn’t lower than in-person care. And fourth, expanding telehealth makes the health care market more competitive. That leads to lower costs and higher-quality services.

Our leaders noticed these benefits. The House and Senate introduced bills that would expand telehealth for Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries. Lawmakers are pushing to make physician reimbursement rates for telehealth visits equivalent to those for in-person treatment, making it easier for providers to offer telehealth services to patients.

Ohio lawmakers are making promising strides, too. In October, officials permanently expanded telehealth access for Medicaid beneficiaries.

It took a global crisis to make telehealth commonplace. But it only takes a little common sense for lawmakers to preserve Americans’ access to this method of care.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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