Can telemedicine thrive beyond COVID?

By:

May 19, 2020

With an expected one billion telemedicine appointments by the end of the year as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, many health experts believe this heralds a permanent change in healthcare delivery. We have long-posited that telemedicine has the potential to disrupt in-person care delivery. By enabling health professionals to diagnose and treat their patients remotely via video and audio, it stands to greatly increase access to healthcare, and as a result, reduce costs through preventative screenings. However, prior to the pandemic it didn’t expand as rapidly as expected. In the wake of its newfound growth, will telemedicine have staying power beyond COVID-19, or will the healthcare system revert back to how it was before the pandemic?

Right now, it’s too early to tell just how transformative the current crisis will be for telehealth in the long run. A newfound appreciation for telehealth from patients and providers alike could be a leading driver in its persistence, but long-term growth still hinges largely on whether the regulatory regime remains in its currently relaxed state or reverts back to pre-crisis norms. 

Why is telemedicine taking off now?

In the middle of an extreme circumstance, people see what’s truly enough to meet their needs. This is exactly the case with telemedicine. Right now, most people can’t make in-person medical appointments, either because their doctor’s office is closed, or because they can’t leave home. For a lot of people, and a lot of health practices, telemedicine is the only option. As a result, patients who formerly might not have tried telemedicine are recognizing its benefits. Some are even realizing that telemedicine may actually be better suited for their specific needs and circumstances than in-person care. By optimizing for convenience, telemedicine enables patients to engage more easily and consistently with the healthcare system. In the long run, increased access to care could greatly reduce costs for individuals by enabling providers to detect symptoms before they become life threatening.

It’s not just patients who are seeing the pros of telemedicine. As the pandemic continues, providers are recognizing how telemedicine can help to maintain meaningful relationships with patients, and assist in the management of chronic disease care and crucial health screenings. One provider pointed out there’s a certain level of friendship that forms with patients when communicating over video chat, allowing for a glimpse into each other’s daily lives that would not come with a typical patient visit. 

There are, of course, downsides to only being able to use photos and video chat for medical care. It goes without saying that there are benefits to an in-person visit: certain types of exams can’t be conducted virtually, shots can’t be administered, and seeing someone in person is clearer than through a camera. However, growth in telemedicine capabilities allows providers to monitor for conditions that, ten years ago, couldn’t have been imagined. Doctors are able to monitor for heart attacks, address mental health needs, and even care for emergency stroke patients. And telemedicine capabilities are steadily growing as technology improves.  

Barriers to continued success

The biggest hurdle to telemedicine’s staying power is regulation. In order to expand telemedicine services during the pandemic, many regulations were either relaxed or altered surrounding its use. These include changes to the rules on the geographic reach of telemedicine, which types of providers are qualified to provide medical care over video calls, and everything in between. 

For example, reimbursement regulation changes now allow health clinics to be paid for telehealth services (including audio-only appointments) at the same level as in-person care. This enables providers to perform these services knowing that they will not lose money in doing so. Patients benefit from regulation changes as well. Insurance companies are waiving copay and out-of-pocket fees to use their telehealth services during the pandemic. If these changes continue post-COVID, then there is a definite case that telemedicine will persist beyond the pandemic. If not, however, there is nothing incentivizing providers or patients to use these services. 

The problem is, no one knows for sure if these new, relaxed regulations will stand the test of time after the pandemic ends. 

Either way, patients may choose to go back to in-person appointments for some feeling of normalcy after months of sheltering in place. There is a definite sense of a desire to return to a “normal” life sooner rather than later. Whether or not this will include resuming in-person medical appointments is something only time will tell, but it will certainly impact telemedicine’s expansion.

As it stands right now, the future of telemedicine looks bright. Utilization is up, more services are being provided, and both patients and physicians are happy with the technology. The pandemic may have presented the ideal circumstances for telemedicine to establish a disruptive foothold. But the biggest barrier to its continued success will be whether these temporary regulation changes are just that—temporary. The benefits telemedicine is demonstrating for doctors and patients alike make a strong case for making these regulations permanent. All we can do for now is wait and see what happens.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.