COVID-19 has catapulted medicine into a new, virtual world. Although telemedicine has been around for years, it’s quickly transitioned in the last six months from a “nice-to-have” for medical practices to a real necessity. Today, physicians rely on telemedicine to see their patients, as well as diagnose and treat minor and chronic conditions.
But what happens when the pandemic comes to an end? Is telemedicine a flash in the internet pan, or is it here to stay?
From my own experience as a practicing physician, I see three main reasons why telemedicine will continue to gain traction with my colleagues and most likely, become a permanent clinical option for patient care.
Technology Continues To Improve
Health care IT innovation moves faster than most of us appreciate, and the pandemic has encouraged telehealth companies to work even harder to make their products simple and more effective for doctors and patients. I expect to see even further advances in virtual care tools over the next few years.
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, of Massachusetts General Hospital, points out how easy telemedicine has become, just since the onset of the pandemic. “Pre-COVID, telemedicine was often time-consuming and inconsistent. New solutions available today make it so simple, that even my older patients find it easy to use. All they have to do is click a link on their smartphones, which is sent to them via text automatically.”
With innovative features and better functionality, these tools will increasingly become the best option for treating a broad range of conditions, long after the pandemic subsides.
Reimbursement and Regulation
While the billing process for telemedicine remains somewhat uncertain for providers, chances are that insurance companies will be forced to adapt to the growing demand for these appointments and reimburse accordingly. Health care organizations will likely begin establishing permanent telemedicine services for patients who reside in rural areas or who simply prefer to receive virtual care. Telemedicine benefits have already been expanded beyond COVID-19 for Medicare beneficiaries, so the bulk of private insurance companies are likely to follow suit.
Access to health care is not evenly distributed across the U.S. and telehealth can absolutely help fill the gaps. As an example, for those in rural communities the nearest clinic may be hours away, but with telemedicine, patient location is far less of a problem. Moreover, increased innovation in telemedicine platforms has now made it possible for patients to connect to their doctors with only a smartphone; where previously, a broadband internet connection was required. Most Black, Hispanic, and other underserved Americans own smartphones, which in turn enables these patients to access a broad range of telemedicine services. Increased access is key to bridging the digital divide in health care for all Americans.
I believe this is only the beginning, as the benefits of telemedicine are so obvious and dramatic. The question isn’t if telemedicine has a future, but rather how ubiquitous it will be in our health care system moving forward.
Previously published in MedCityNews.