The new coronavirus outbreak has put enormous pressure on the American health care system. In response, federal officials and private insurers have rushed to improve patient access to video consultations and other forms of virtual care.
It may have taken a public health emergency to bring “telehealth” to the mainstream, but these services are nothing new. We would do well to expand our reliance on telehealth long after COVID-19 is behind us.
Telehealth involves the use of technology to deliver medical care from a distance. Most people associate the term with virtual doctor visits and wearable devices that share patients’ vital signs with clinicians. But telehealth programs also include educational webinars for chronic disease patients and drone delivery of tests and prescriptions to patients’ homes.
These services have provedn indispensable in the fight against COVID-19. To reduce demand for inpatient care, NYU Langone Health has directed patients with flu-like symptoms to its Virtual Urgent Care Service. This program, which connects patients to clinicians via phone, tablet or computer, saw a 10-fold increase in volume over a single week in early March. Spectrum Health now offers free video screening for COVID-19 to patients in Michigan.
Efforts like these could prove critical to managing the pandemic. In addition to screening patients, telehealth programs allow physicians to more easily triage cases and instruct noncritical patients to self-quarantine. Steps like these could help contain the outbreak and soften the waves of demand already hitting hospitals.
No wonder lawmakers and insurers have rushed to expand access to telehealth. The emergency appropriations bill President Donald Trump signed into law earlier this month does so for Medicare beneficiaries. The president has also made it possible for out-of-state doctors to treat patients remotely using telehealth services. Several private insurers, including Aetna and Humana, have eliminated cost-sharing for telehealth visits.
These steps won’t just help people during the pandemic. They could fill gaps in the availability of care for years to come.
For example, more than one-quarter of rural Americans currently struggle to access health services, in part because they live too far from the nearest doctor. Telehealth could address that problem virtually overnight.
Even when rural patients have to head to the hospital, telehealth can provide an assist. The University of New Mexico’s Project ECHO helps specialists from around the world teach rural doctors how to treat complex conditions. Remote emergency rooms are allowing doctors stationed hundreds of miles away to treat patients with the assistance of nurses on the ground in rural areas.
Further, the United States is projected to face a shortage of about 121,000 doctors by 2032. Telehealth could mitigate the impact of that shortage by enhancing physician productivity. Doctors could remotely monitor their patients around the clock — and tweak patients’ treatment regimens from afar, without the need for an appointment.
Remote monitoring could also allow physicians to catch health problems before they grow serious — and thus obviate the need for more resource-intensive care down the line.
Pair that remote monitoring with patient education, and outcomes can improve even further. One study out of Brazil found that virtual health education seminars were associated with increased medication adherence among patients with hypertension.
Better outcomes can yield lower costs. Consider the experience of Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland, which implemented a telehealth program in 2016. After two years, the hospital had reduced the cost of caring for chronic disease patients by more than half.
Expanding access to telehealth is a crucial part of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It deserves a permanent place in our healthcare system, long after the crisis has passed.
Sally C. Pipes is the president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All” (Encounter 2020). Twitter: @sallypipes.