One legacy of our response to COVID-19 surely will be how it has accelerated the adoption of virtual care. It is one of the more encouraging developments during the losses of the pandemic.
A recent study that examined outpatient visits during several months of the pandemic in 2020 found that 30% of those visits were virtual. Last year at my health system, Providence, we were able to rapidly scale telehealth, thanks to regulatory flexibility, and saw a remarkable increase from under 20,000 to 1.7 million virtual visits. No doubt virtual care will have staying power in 2021 and beyond.
We’ve seen the tremendous benefits of expanded telehealth over the past year. It has proved popular with patients, offering them a critical way to continue getting the care they need during the pandemic. Not only has telehealth boosted patient satisfaction, it has increased their access to specialists, reduced unnecessary hospitalizations, lowered costs and improved health outcomes.
To sustain this progress, the AHA is strongly urging Congress to consider the elimination of the geographic and originating site restrictions, which would allow all eligible patients to receive telehealth services in their homes, residential facilities and other locations. AHA also is urging Congress to work with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to ensure adequate reimbursement for virtual health care services — so providers can deliver high-quality care and improved patient outcomes — and to expand the types of providers that can deliver and bill for telehealth services.
While working toward expanding telehealth services, we also must recognize the “digital divide” in telehealth access. Rural areas may have limited broadband availability, and pockets of urban areas can have spotty connectivity — preventing patients from choosing digital health care options. Some patients don’t have access to smartphones or laptops, and others may have difficulties using these digital tools. Privacy and security issues also need to be addressed.
Some of our patients will always prefer face-to-face visits, while certain in-person appointments are necessary, such as for clinical specialties like ophthalmology and orthopedics. Yet it’s not hard to see how telehealth momentum will continue to build even when the pandemic subsides.
The pandemic has changed the way people receive care — and prefer to receive care. Connecting with our clinicians by smartphone or tablet is convenient, efficient and effective, and it’s here to stay.
Rod Hochman, M.D.