Visits to the doctor’s office may soon become a thing of the past, at least in many cases.
For two years during the height of the pandemic, healthcare providers across the country traded face-to-face appointments for virtual appointments and other telehealth services. Remote appointments caught on, too. Much of the public loved them. And now, healthcare could be changed for good.
Below, we explore the surge in telehealth over the past two years and what it means for the future of healthcare technology.
What Happened to Virtual Appointments During the Pandemic
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that telehealth use increased during the pandemic. But the extent to which it did might be shocking.
Research by McKinsey found that by April 2020, virtual patient visits were 78 times higher than two months earlier and accounted for almost a third of outpatient visits. Over a year later, in May 2021, almost nine in 10 patients had used telehealth services at some point during the pandemic, and 83 percent of doctors were offering virtual services.
Indeed, the use of telemedicine was indispensable in maintaining healthcare access throughout the pandemic. That’s according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which found that Medicare visits conducted digitally increased 63-fold, rising from 840,000 visits in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020.
What Does the Future Hold for Telehealth?
Ask most Americans what they want from the future of telehealth, and they’ll say “more, please.”
A report by Sykes found most Americans like telehealth enough to keep using it after the pandemic. Almost nine in 10 (88 percent) want to continue virtual appointments for non-urgent care, and 80 percent believe it’s possible to receive high-quality care remotely.
Bear in mind, the report was conducted at a time when the majority of Americans had experienced telehealth in one form or another.
Brian Koffman, MDCM, chief medical officer at the CLL Society, certainly believes things have changed for good. In a presentation at the 25th Annual International Congress on Hematologic Malignancies® in February 2021, he proclaimed: “We are not going back to business as normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed things forever.”
The future of telehealth isn’t certain just yet, however. Health policy reporter Michael Ollove points out that lawmakers will need to extend the emergency measures that made telehealth viable to begin with, particularly those that expanded Medicaid to cover virtual appointments.
“Many of the pending telehealth bills pertain to Medicaid, the joint federal/state health plan for low-income Americans,” Ollove writes. “Twenty-seven states already have taken advantage of relaxed federal rules to expand Medicaid coverage of telehealth services, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”
What Should Virtual Appointments Look Like in the Future?
The public may look favorably on virtual appointments, but work can still be done to improve remote care delivery.
Telehealth should be treated as a separate but related channel to in-person treatment, says Gurpreet Singh, a partner and U.S. health services sector leader at PwC. Together they should be part of a multichannel strategy, one that takes into account how both journeys interact with each other.
"Designing the virtual patient journey that intersects and interacts with the physical patient journey is really important," Singh tells mHealthIntelligence. "And so many are employing new chief experience officers or chief digital officers that really understand, or can decompose the journey, and better understand where the moments that matter exist."
Solutions will also need to take accessibility into account. While there have been many positives with telehealth, there’s work to be done to optimize visits in the future—“especially to ensure equitable access and outcomes for all,” says Meg Barron, a vice president of digital health initiatives at the American Medical Association.
Barron highlights four key areas, in particular, that must be addressed: device access, connectivity, digital literacy and design relevance.
Improve those areas and continue to provide high-quality care remotely, and you may have a winning formula for the future of telehealth.