What Will Telehealth Look Like After the COVID-19 Pandemic?

All eyes in the healthcare sector are now squarely focused on COVID-19. More broadly, industry leaders and government officials are taking a close look at the pandemic’s influence on healthcare delivery. Everyone is trying to figure out what healthcare delivery will look like when all of this is over. It is bound to look at least somewhat different.

Telehealth is especially intriguing right now. For more than a decade, technology proponents have been pushing hard for widespread adoption of telehealth in everything from primary care to psychiatry. Yet a combination of regulatory control and industry unwillingness have kept telehealth at arm’s length.

COVID-19 has changed the dynamic by forcing clinicians to remotely see patients unable to make office visits due to stay-at-home orders. Once those orders are lifted, will telehealth continue unabated? Vista Staffing is one telehealth provider who sees plenty of potential here.

Insurance and Medicare Reimbursements

It has been suggested that insurance companies and the federal Medicare program will have a lot to say about telemedicine moving forward. In the midst of COVID-19, Medicare has relaxed its rules regarding telehealth visits. Patients are now allowed to visit with their doctors via telemedicine portals; their doctors can offer virtual visits with confidence that they will be reimbursed as normal.

What happens when stay-at-home orders are finally rescinded? Medicare may return to its standard rules. That would be a big blow to the progress telehealth has made in recent weeks. On the other hand, Medicare officials could have an epiphany. They could realize how much more efficient and cost-effective telehealth is for primary care and continue on with the relaxed rules.

As for private insurance companies, they are in a similar position. More than one insurance provider has stepped up and agreed to cover the cost of telemedicine just as if patients were making office visits. They will have to make their own decisions once stay-at-home orders are rescinded.

One thing we do know is that doctors will not continue telemedicine options if insurance companies and Medicare refuse to pay for it. They will have no choice. They have to get paid to keep their practices alive.

Improving Rural Medicine

There is another aspect to this that healthcare experts are now beginning to talk about: the potential for telehealth to transform rural medicine. We have known this potential for quite a while. Yet for some unknown reason, we have not employed telehealth on a large scale to improve access in rural areas. Perhaps we are on the cusp of changing that too.

An April 20 article published by The Hill cites data suggesting that 70% of all U.S. counties don’t have even one child psychiatrist. The data was cited in relation to a discussion of suicide and mental health issues among children. Opinion contributor Tim Robinson made the case that relaxing telemedicine rules could open the door to more psychiatric care in rural areas.

An Incredibly Useful Tool

Common sense dictates that telehealth is not a complete, drop-in replacement for face-to-face medicine. There are times when patients must see their doctors in person. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to come to terms with the fact that a sizable percentage of office visits are not medically necessary. Those same visits can be successfully facilitated via telehealth.

The pandemic is forcing the medical sector to come to terms with telemedicine as an incredibly useful tool. As with any other tool, change comes slowly. Perhaps the transition to telemedicine might be faster thanks to the lessons learned from fighting COVID-19. Let us hope such is the case here.