Virtual Floodgates Open for Telehealth Services – Is Coronavirus Changing the Way We Do Healthcare?
A Pennsylvania man waits anxiously by his laptop to speak with a healthcare provider about a scratchy sore throat and low-grade fever he’s had for the past two days. A Dallas mother is dropped into queue with instructions to gather all medications and shot records before signing in to video chat with an urgent care doctor about her sick baby.
This could be the new face of healthcare since the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in recent weeks. In fact, some telehealth providers including, San Francisco based, Doctors on Demand have seen a 50% uptick in virtual visits to doctors and other healthcare clinicians in the past few days alone.
Rapidly Changing Landscape
Just last year, doctors affiliated with leading Boston based firm, Amwell that provides video healthcare for patients in 44 states was conducting virtual visits about 1-2 times per month.
Today, the number of patients linked to telehealth services supporting video or virtual doctor visits has skyrocketed. Doctors who had initially expected telemedicine to grow steadily over the next 3 or 4 years have suddenly been thrust into the virtual arena with the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Major institutions including renowned, Cleveland Clinic have reported an increase in virtual visits by 15 fold in the last week alone and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has ramped up the number of clinicians who handle virtual consults from 6 to 60.
Patients who may be immune suppressed, actively sick with a contagious illness or not in need of emergency treatment can be seen by a clinician without having to risk their health or the health of others while waiting in a crowded doctor’s office. In many cases, medical personnel can quickly evaluate the health of a patient and determine if there is a need for further testing, an in-person physical examination or treatment. This leaves medical centers and hospitals room and resources for sick patients symptomatic with coronavirus, or other medical conditions.
While telemedicine has exploded over the coronavirus crisis, getting resources in place along with workable networks is not without its challenges. As the Internet strains to keep up with exponential demand for bandwidth, healthcare clinicians scramble for virtual care training as they hit the ground running. Confusion over insurance reimbursement and payment to facilities and caregivers has further complicated the matter.
Despite its slow rollout and technical infrastructure overload, major providers like Cleveland Clinic are onboarding their complete physician staff as well as, nursing to handle the influx of remote video visits.
Of course, not every individual will benefit from virtual healthcare since some conditions or illnesses can only be evaluated through a hands-on medical examination and tests. And while recent surveys reveal 28% of patients feel there’s less of a connection to their doctor with remote visits, more physicians, (36%) fear the very real possibility of mistakes being made without the ability to evaluate the health of a patient in person.
Another major obstacle to telehealth has been the physician concern (77%) over whether virtual visits will be covered by an already overburdened healthcare system. That may be quickly changing however, in light of the Trump Administration’s decision to rapidly expand telehealth to curb the spread of coronavirus. Just last week, the president authorized services for tens of millions of Medicare patients who choose this delivery model for healthcare and a reimbursement rate for providers equal to that of “in-person” visits.
A whole host of clinicians that include physicians, nurse practitioners, psychologists and clinical social workers provide preventive health screenings, medical evaluations, and mental health counseling if needed.
Even smaller Telehealth networks accessed through phone apps such as MedMind, have found a place in the rapidly changing healthcare marketplace. The app designed to put patients in touch with healthcare services including clinicians, support resources, programs, and information will also track wellness progress. Individuals will not only interact with their doctor online, but will have access to shared test results and reports, medication changes and reminders, and online nutritionists and wellness coaches.
While some healthcare providers have been ahead of the curve, gently introducing telemedicine to patients over the last couple of years, others must now scramble to put a technical infrastructure and doctors in place under the weight of current coronavirus conditions.
And while this emerging doctor patient treatment model continues to gather momentum, after the initial crisis of COVID-19 has passed, it is clear virtual medicine has a permanent role in the way we experience healthcare as a nation.