Many Texans had their first-ever telehealth appointment at some point in the last 18 months—likely a video chat to talk symptoms, prescriptions, or follow-up care with a doctor.
Once relatively rare, virtual doctor visits boomed during the pandemic, as public health measures kept us at home. Even giant companies are betting telehealth is here to stay. Walmart recently bought MeMD, a virtual care provider. And Amazon Care launched services this year.
The upsides are clear. Virtual appointments can increase access to high-quality health care and reduce costs. But it will take action from Congress and state legislatures to make telehealth a permanent feature of our health care system.
The current telehealth boom is the product of many emergency rule changes. In March 2020, Congress temporarily waived the requirement that patients travel to designated sites to use telehealth services and permitted the use of phones, laptops and video platforms like Skype and FaceTime to speak with doctors.
State-level waivers also helped. Several states, including Texas, temporarily granted providers beyond their borders the ability to give virtual appointments in state.
It’s no surprise, then, that telehealth use has risen dramatically. Nearly one-quarter of all medical visits in the first four months of the pandemic were telehealth visits, compared to just 0.3% in the same period the prior year. Between the start of the pandemic and July of last year, 4.5 million Texans utilized virtual health services for the first time.
There’s no doubt that patients enjoy having the option of virtual visits. Nearly 95% of state residents who used telehealth say they would be willing to use it in the future, according to a poll from consulting firm Accenture.
The convenience is a boon. A typical telehealth call lasts just 15 minutes, with no commute time or lingering in a waiting room. And convenience means more treatment, sooner. In a Mayo Clinic survey of more than 1,500 health care professionals, more than 80% of doctors said that telehealth improved the timeliness of care for their patients.
Patients save money as well as time — an average of $38 per visit, according to a study by Harvard Medical School, which looked at the relative opportunity cost of virtual versus in-person visits for employed adults. The same study found that employed Americans spend an unnecessary 1.1 billion hours and $25 billion per year seeking in-person care.
According to the Mayo Clinic survey, more than 75% of doctors said telehealth enabled them to provide quality care across a range of health issues.
Physicians in Texas agree. One specialist with Texas Oncology said telehealth was a “silver lining of this pandemic.” An Austin neurologist cited the convenience factor for patients who struggle to find transport to the doctor’s office.
That virtual access is essential in Texas. Many patients live hours from a doctor’s office, and dozens of counties don’t have a single physician.
Unfortunately, the future of telehealth is uncertain. Texas’ telehealth waiver is set to expire at the end of September. As of mid-August, 32 states lacked telehealth waivers or had let their waivers expire.
This kind of pointless infringement on doctors’ and patients’ rights reduces competition, which contributes to high health costs at a time when too many patients already struggle with affordability.
Last month, Governor Abbott signed a bill into law that allows for the delivery of telehealth services under Medicaid and the state’s other public health plans. But the law won’t extend to Texans covered by private insurance plans. Several bills that would increase access to telehealth post-pandemic are pending in Congress, but their prospects for passage are uncertain.
Elected officials mustn’t dawdle. It’s time to remove restrictions on telehealth access for good.