Trends in Telehealth

June 23, 2020

The COVID-10 crisis brought telehealth to headlines and accelerated the trend of providing medical care remotely where possible. As medical practices restart more elective care, the industry is looking at how it will incorporate telehealth longer term. In this insight we explore current trends and consider how medical practices will incorporate increased telehealth in the coming years. 

Current State and Needs

State and federal laws limited digital healthcare before COVID-19. But, larger practices and specialists worked around the bureaucracy to provide telehealth regardless of service reimbursement issues and parity agreements.

Before the pandemic, some of the first healthcare institutions that implemented telehealth focused on senior citizens and chronically ill patients that did not qualify for home health care. They discovered that it reduced ER visits, reduced hospitalizations, and cut the cost of care.

It only made sense to follow the lead of extensive health care management services when stay at home orders and quarantine became part of everyday life for most. But, less-resourced medical practices are facing obstacles because of financial and workforce investments.

The range of technology needed for the success of telehealth include:

  • Telecommunication technology
  • Remote clinical health care
  • Public health capabilities
  • Health-related education for both patients and professionals
  • Telecommunication Technology

Digital health platforms are answering the call for better telecommunication technologies. They offer better access to information and methods of communication. Specific platforms are even compatible with modern innovations such as fitness apps and self-monitoring devices.

However, for cost management purposes, many smaller practices are using telephones and free video conference software to communicate with their patients.

Many hospitals and aftercare clinics instruct patients if they believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 to call or use telehealth rather than showing up in the ER. Rural health services are sometimes relying on public questionnaires and evaluations because of unavailability for affordable technologies. It puts these communities at a higher risk.

The various reasons that quality telecommunication technology becomes an investment issue for smaller medical practices include:

  • Telehealth tech guides need to be comfortable with new technology and have the ability to teach others. To fill the position, healthcare institutions must take on the strain of staffing costs.
  • The equipment costs are not always conducive to a healthcare provider’s budget.
  • Internet availability continues to be a problem in the US. Even if some medical practices have access, video conferences are not possible because of gaps in rural broadband.
  • Reimbursement policies directly affect the ability to pay for upgrades. It is hard to invest money that simply is not there.

Smaller medical practices are implementing telehealth technology in terms of telecommunication. Utilizing free services like Skype and Zoom is one step.

The rise of digital health platforms is helping, too. The support they provide is more cost-efficient and secure than using publicly accessed apps and software.

Remote Clinical Health Care

The doctor that most people see the most is their primary health physician. The importance of that fact in telehealth is patient comfort. People are not apt to change doctors simply because of the availability of telehealth.

In rural areas, low-income, elderly, and chronically ill patients often do not have access to health care. Telehealth modalities and visits can fill that gap as an actual remedy for failing insurance coverage, rather than widen it.

Remote clinical healthcare also reduces wait time and in-person cancellations. It saves costs, but most of all, it saves lives.

COVID-19 has created an unsafe environment for person-to-person doctor visits. However, it has also revealed that virtual appointments work. Nurses can take vitals, physicians can talk to their patients, and test results are shareable through telehealth.

But, small and rural medical practices are sometimes still in the age of pagers and fax machines. The pandemic has even seen a rise in doctor house calls. Telehealth is more expedient and less costly once implemented, but the investment is still an obstacle.

Digital health care is not just a niche anymore. Also, it is not only for COVID-19 diagnosis and tracking.

Public Health Capabilities

Beyond COVID-19, telehealth innovations need sustainability. The availability, access, and affordability are a long-term goal for the digital health care system. It is heavily reliant on federal and state legislation catching up with the need for technology.

Fully functional public health capabilities require security. Patient records and test results fall under HIPAA laws, but because of COVID-19, enforcement is not a priority. However, to sustain the new normal, privacy laws are still critical to health care.

The use of Skype and Zoom has been helpful during this trying time; however, they have no guarantee of security. Digital health platforms are in development, and companies, along with insurers, are coming up with new ways to create sustainable public health.

Another issue is the security around the vast amount of data collected using telehealth. Encryption is necessary, but not readily available. Telehealth utilizes a range of apps and devices. Because medical practices are all unique, privacy-by-design is the more secure route for doctor and patient privacy.

Health-Related Education

COVID-19 has taught many Americans about the importance of hygiene and social distancing. Education has prevented the further spread of the virus and saved millions of lives.

Telehealth is going to play a major factor in the future of health-related education. It will require collaboration, development, and delivery.

Small and rural medical practices have shared information using their capabilities; however, it lacks because telephone calls and fax machines are no longer efficient.

Sustainable telehealth for any medical institution will require:

  • Transparent Collaboration within a Practice
  • Cultivating Participation
  • Creating Alliances within a Community
  • Developing Outside Partnerships
  • Collaborations with a Medical Institution
  • Seeking Funding Opportunities
  • Improving and Streamlining of Medical Services

Small medical practices are finding their footing in telehealth one step at a time, the first and foremost being funding.

The federal government passed the CARES Act on March 27th, 2020. Of the $2 trillion package, the Federal Communications Commission received only $200 million to apply to medical devices and telecommunication equipment. The Connected Care Pilot Program received another $100 million over three years to subsidize quality internet access for health care providers.

Broad coverage of health care will continue to involve telehealth and the COVID-19 crisis only increased its implementation. While many challenges remain beyond the technical implementation, patients and physicians will face this future together. 

Written by
Jake Hannigan

Jake Hannigan is the Business Development Strategist for Van Allen Strategies. He has spent his career growing and developing start-ups in the education and technology industries.

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