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COVID-19: The Impact on the Use of Telehealth

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COVID-19 has obviously caused a shock to the global economy and disrupted, on a massive scale, normal consumer behavior patterns, stalling a bullish economy into a decline.
March 27, 2020

COVID-19 has obviously caused a shock to the global economy and disrupted, on a massive scale, normal consumer behavior patterns, stalling a bullish economy into a decline.

The healthcare system has faced significant challenges in dealing with the breadth of cases from the COVID-19 outbreak. The contagious nature of the virus has prioritized limiting the spread of COVID-19 as healthcare systems look to new ways to treat patients both with COVID-19 and with other conditions. One technological healthcare advance changing the landscape of healthcare within the COVID-19 pandemic is the use of telehealth. Telehealth uses video conferencing so patients can interact with their doctors or healthcare providers to communicate their status.

Telehealth existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but healthcare systems have exponentially increased their use of telehealth systems to efficiently and effectively utilize their healthcare staff and protect high-risk patients who still need to receive care.1 Businesses providing telehealth systems have reported massive increases in the use of their systems as a result of the pandemic. Therapy Brands, a company providing telehealth solutions, reported an increase of more than 4,300% (as of March 25, 2020) in the use of its telehealth services from the week prior.2  American Well, another telehealth provider, stated that its usage had increased 158% nationwide.3 Established companies like Humana, Inc. and Anthem, Inc., have also taken steps to increase the capacity of their telehealth systems. 4 According to Jason Gorevic, CEO of Teladoc "The demand has shifted forever on virtual care, and we're on the verge of a new era for virtual care in the healthcare system," he said in a recent interview on CNBC.

Legislation passed by the federal government relaxed prior telehealth restrictions on an emergency and temporary basis. These changes occurred within the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and an 1135 waiver. Under these articles of legislation, Medicare will now pay for office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth.5

The government is also turning to economic measures to support telehealth within the COVID-19 pandemic. The department of Health and Human Services announced on March 24, 2020 that it would release $100 million in funds from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to over 1,000 health centers to help them expand telehealth programs.6 Additional legislation could potentially give $50 million in funding to connect nursing facilities to connected health systems with telehealth measures through the Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS).7

The benefits of telehealth in preventing the spread of COVID-19 have led to its higher usage rate in the current healthcare environment. Telehealth has allowed doctors to connect with a geographically diverse patient base through the connective powers of video conferencing, allowing the expertise of doctors to be dispersed through video conference calls to areas where physicians may not be able to keep up with the demand of patients.8 Additionally, telehealth allows quarantined physicians who have been in contact with the virus to work with patients through a video conference call without the risk of exposing patients to the virus.9 Telehealth also allows the continuation of care for high-risk patients who still need access to health care even with the pandemic.10

The evidence points to telehealth being an increasingly effective measure in terms of its short term response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The more uncertain area is the future of telehealth after the pandemic. Many telehealth providers are optimistic that the usage of telehealth will change the way medicine is practiced within the world. Telehealth is being analyzed for its potential impact outside of the COVID-19 pandemic. RecoveryGo, a video conferencing service run by startup Hazelden, aims to use telehealth for counseling and treating patients recovering from substance abuse.11

Regardless of how significant the penetration of telehealth becomes, businesses should familiarize themselves with these systems as they can be a nice complement to a business’s employee health plans. Many large health insurance providers already have telehealth options and have for many years. Perhaps this pandemic will be the catalyst for ongoing increase in the use of telehealth services. This would certainly further accelerate the already fast changing landscape of healthcare both in our country and around the world.

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