When COVID-19 hit just two years ago, American healthcare systems were in a huge period of adjustment. Due to health risks and restrictions, many people were unable to see their primary care physician in person – their only option was to meet with them virtually via telehealth.
In the recent study Roadmap to effective telehealth: care, health and digital actions According to Brookings Governance Studies, researchers define telehealth as “the delivery and facilitation of health and health-related services, including medical care, provider and patient education, health and personal care via telecommunications and digital communication technologies”.
In this article, we’ll explore how the pandemic has changed telehealth, why virtual health services matter, and the path suggested by Brookings researchers to permanently implement telehealth in the United States.
How COVID-19 has changed telehealth
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, healthcare providers (HCPs) reserved remote healthcare services primarily for patients with common contagious diseases to prevent them from infecting others. But when the coronavirus shuttered healthcare facilities across the country, telehealth became the only option for most people to get routine medical care.
How did this change happen so quickly? State and federal agencies have eased some of the restrictions that had prevented medical professionals from using telehealth. As a result, telehealth proliferated, and at the height of the pandemic, over 99% of healthcare facilities were able to provide virtual healthcare services in some form. This meant everyone had access to the care they needed, especially those in medically underserved populations.
Brookings researchers have found that the most vulnerable populations have more smartphones and other mobile devices than ever before. This further expands access to remote health care, while reducing transportation costs to and from a provider’s office.
Why telehealth is important
Telehealth is important for many reasons, one being improved care for all patients. It is categorized as “value-based care,” which means providers are paid based on their patients’ health outcomes and the quality of their care. This model allows for more flexibility and helps providers use their resources more efficiently, ensuring comprehensive care for all patients.
It also means that people from diverse backgrounds who struggled to get the right care before COVID-19 now have the opportunity. It closes the access gap and erodes health disparities that affect vulnerable groups, including people of color and rural residents.
“Telehealth helps underserved communities in many ways,” said Chris McGovern, director of research development at Connected Nation. “It provides access to specialist care for residents even in the most remote and underserved areas. It makes it easier and safer for older people, immunocompromised people and people with mobility issues to be treated by their healthcare professional. This cuts down on childcare costs, the need to take time off work, and trips to and from the doctor.
In addition to providing vital healthcare services to all patients, regardless of geographic location or financial ability, telehealth is also helping to bridge the digital divide. Lack of reliable internet access is a major problem that many organizations, communities, and federal/state officials are trying to address. Expanding telehealth and making it the new normal will help bring attention to the issue of connectivity – an issue that many people may not have thought of before.
“If individuals don’t have internet access, they can’t access telehealth services,” said Connected Nation research assistant David Nunnally. “If the Internet is too slow, some modalities, such as two-way audiovisual telehealth services, become difficult. And without attention to digital literacy, even if individuals have access to reliable Internet and devices, they may not know how to use them appropriately to access telehealth services.
In the Brookings study, researchers created a list of recommendations to help doctors, hospitals, urgent care facilities and primary care providers implement telehealth into their daily operations, enabling more Americans to get the care they need. Recommendations include:
- Federal and state governments must continue to expand the availability and use of telehealth in a post-pandemic environment by codifying its use, particularly in legislation.
The first thing federal and state agencies need to do is make telehealth flexibility guidelines permanent. They can do this by extending the policies already in place since COVID-19. For example, agencies should allow non-rural residents to use telehealth services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) offices to continually expand the list of covered telehealth services and modalities.
“Emergency orders and waivers resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have led state and federal agencies to relax many of the restrictions that have slowed or prevented the expansion of telehealth services, but many of these waivers have already expired or are about to do so,” McGovern said. “Expanding telehealth must be done wisely to minimize the risk of fraud and ensure dollars are spent effectively.”
Brookings researchers suggest it’s time for Congress to permanently integrate telehealth into the US healthcare system to provide patients with more cost-effective and time-efficient healthcare.
- Adapt to new and changing technologies.
The next tactic for overcoming telehealth challenges is digital equity – making sure healthcare professionals and patients know how to use rapidly changing technologies. Local health centers can be key in assessing the online needs of patient populations and helping train them. Very often, communities are unaware of the resources available to them.
“If individuals can’t use digital devices properly, they won’t be able to navigate these new telehealth technologies,” Nunnally said.
It is imperative that these healthcare facilities create long-term plans to teach patients how to keep up with changing technologies, if they want to continue using telehealth in the long term. The creation or expansion of community health centers could help address the issue of digital literacy by combining technology training with other patient education programs.
- State and localities should prioritize telehealth in their broadband plan and include local stakeholders.
For telehealth to continue, patients to have to have high-speed Internet access. Federal agencies have taken note of the lack of broadband across the country that has come to light due to COVID-19. They have made bridging the digital divide a priority by proposing new legislation to provide funding for broadband access.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill is an example. It says that when states develop their infrastructure plans, they should strive to integrate telehealth into their plans and increase access to remote health care for vulnerable populations.
“Many people lack reliable or fast internet service and/or devices to access the internet,” Nunnally said. “National investments like the Affordable Connectivity Program and several other bills currently being negotiated in Congress provide funding for these efforts, which are making telehealth a reality for people who might not have been able to take advantage of the services otherwise.”
The path to follow
The COVID-19 outbreak has brought telehealth to the fore, but the Brookings study shows us that the demand for virtual health services isn’t going away. On the contrary, the need will continue to grow.
To ensure that every American who needs remote health services has access to the right tools and technology, we must work together to create a telehealth roadmap, including better broadband for all. .
About the Author: Lily McCoy is Connected Nation’s Social Media and Communications Specialist. Lily provides support to the communications department through social media outreach and writing. She also adds a source of creativity to the team with a background in personal relations and marketing. Lily holds a bachelor’s degree in business and organizational communications from Western Kentucky University.