The healthcare system is the lifeblood of the economy. As we saw the last few months, if it fails or even if significant strain is placed on it, the effects ripple across all other sectors. Productivity decreases while prices increase as uncertainty takes a vicious hold on consumer mindsets.
To address critical challenges in the healthcare system and improve the service delivery model, healthcare providers have been adopting telehealth and remote patient monitoring technologies. In particular, the recent spikes in the adoption of these technologies is a direct result of the regulatory change brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With most healthcare providers investing in the technology or making plans for the same, telehealth systems are poised to become a core element in delivering acute, chronic, specialty and primary care.
The core modalities powering telehealth
Three core telehealth modalities are facilitating the remote interaction between providers and patients. Applications for all three are already delivering a high degree of value to patients and providers alike:
- Synchronous – Real-time video and voice interaction via a computer, tablet, or smartphone can integrate peripheral medical equipment such as connected blood pressure cuffs, connected stethoscopes, etc.
- Asynchronous – Data captured, stored, then forwarded to a healthcare provider via a patient portal. This data can include images and biometrics. Communication with the healthcare professional takes place on the portal via a secure (asynchronous) chat.
- Remote Patient Monitoring – The transmission of patient data in real-time (or not) to a healthcare provider to allow continuous monitoring.
The impact of COVID-19 on telemedicine
Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, millions have been infected with the virus. Almost immediately, hospitals around the world were inundated with record levels of patients. Healthcare providers acted quickly. They converted surgical units into ICUs and erected makeshift hospitals in public venues like convention centers and even hotels.
To flatten the curve, healthcare providers turned to the tech world for solutions. Alongside relaxed government regulations and changes to reimbursement policies, providers rapidly adopted telehealth platforms to their practices and consulted with patients remotely. This significantly reduced the number of in-person visitations for those deemed medically necessary.
Consequently, in-person visits declined in the US by 69% from March to April of 2020 while increasing the number of remote consultations.
The rise of remote patient monitoring platforms
Though the use of telemedicine (Telehealth and Remote Patient Monitoring) has increased in the last few years, COVID-19 has been the primary driver of the recent surge in demand. Telehealth offers a wide range of benefits to healthcare providers and patients, such as enabling service delivery when face to face sessions are not possible.
Even before the pandemic, remote monitoring devices were quite widespread across different healthcare niches. However, in the wake of the coronavirus, the market is expected to truly take off.
According to Research & Markets, hardware sales are projected to grow globally from $745.7 million today to $1.7 billion in the next seven years.
That’s because remote patient monitoring has proven to be an invaluable asset in the fight against COVID-19. Though many patients are asymptomatic, some individuals display symptoms while not requiring hospitalization. Rather than admitting the patient into the hospital for observation and further risking disease transmission, healthcare providers can leverage remote monitoring technologies to enable a physician to monitor a patient at home and intervene if their condition worsens.
Further, providers have continued integrating remote patient monitoring into a variety of other new arenas. After discharge, remote monitoring of vital signs and other biometrics has reduced the need for wellness checks by nurses, freeing them to focus on critical patients and tasks.
As patients and providers continue to embrace telehealth’s convenience and safety, the technology will grow even more important for healthcare delivery over the next few years.
How telehealth improves service delivery in healthcare
Any inadequacies or delays in service delivery can have adverse effects on patient outcomes. Unfortunately, problems like these have long been systemic within the majority of healthcare systems. By adopting new technologies, healthcare providers can address these challenges and radically improve patient outcomes.
Here are a few of the key areas where telehealth is transforming care:
- Reduction of unnecessary visits to the ER. Waiting rooms are overcrowded with non-urgent patients waiting for consultation. By setting up medical call centers, hospitals can remotely triage patients and advise them on the best course of action, thus reducing the strain on hospitals.
- Mental and behavioral health. Telehealth increases patient access to chronic mental and behavioral healthcare providers to offer therapeutic services and medication management.
- Substance abuse rehabilitation and counseling. Telehealth allows patients with addictions to stay in treatment longer and receive the counseling they need to improve recovery outcomes even after they’ve left inpatient care facilities.
- Physical therapy instruction and guidance. Various physical therapy treatments can be conducted synchronously and asynchronously, including chronic pain management, cancer rehabilitation, and the strengthening of balance and other physical acts.
- Monitoring of patients with chronic conditions. According to the Commonwealth Fund, 36 % of Americans over the age of 65 live with three or more chronic diseases. Virtual care assists those who have mobility challenges, mental illness, and other conditions that may prevent them from going to in-person medical appointments.
- Postoperative care. Numerous research studies have shown that excellent clinical outcomes and high patient satisfaction can be achieved by conducting postoperative care using telehealth.
- Providing non-urgent care to elderly individuals. Approximately 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the US. Leveraging telehealth technologies to provide non-urgent care to the elderly gives them the opportunity to maintain their independence and live in their homes longer.
- Facilitating care to rural areas outside the current health delivery system. Telehealth provides patients in rural areas with access to quality care. In the event of a medical emergency, telemedicine makes it possible to coordinate with specialists in other regions to ensure patients receive effective treatment.
- New revenue streams. People often seek medical attention when there is no other option. However, with the convenience of telemedicine, patients will have greater access to healthcare professionals. Virtual consultations are often shorter than in-person visits, allowing for better physician time optimization. It is likewise more affordable for the patient empowering them to feel more comfortable seeking medical consultation.
- Increased patient satisfaction. In addition to referrals, many patients evaluate and choose healthcare providers through online reviews. As such, your facility must have positive reviews that will attract new patients. Telemedicine helps improve patient satisfaction scores in two ways:
- Convenience: by offering remote services, providers make it convenient for patients to receive medical attention.
- Reduce wait times: implementing Telehealth reduces in-hospital visits, thus ensuring that waiting periods are cut on both ends. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that in-person visits to the doctor take up approximately two hours of a patient’s time. However, only 20 minutes of that time is spent with a physician, driving significant patient dissatisfaction.
Regulatory challenges and the future of telehealth solutions
Telemedicine has proven an invaluable resource for medical service delivery today and in the future. However, it is still unclear if the reimbursement changes made by CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services at the beginning of the COVID pandemic will continue.
Providers will argue that they have made significant investments in the required technology. Still, if the reimbursement increases are not made permanent, the health systems will be forced into discontinuing the service offering.
Credentialing is another regulatory barrier to delivering comprehensive and quality care via telehealth. Typically, physicians and other healthcare workers are required to have licenses in the states where they offer their services. Though it’s possible to apply for licenses in multiple states, it is cost-prohibitive to do so. Unsurprisingly, taking telehealth internationally is even more challenging.
For patients and healthcare providers to realize telemedicine’s full benefits, lawmakers have to develop a legal framework that will allow telemedicine to thrive while ensuring payment parity between in-clinic and telehealth to remain.
Arizona is a recent example and excellent progress in this respect. Governor Doug Ducey recently signed a bill that made Arizona the first state to recognize out-of-state-professional licenses for use in Arizona. Additional states have tried to follow suit but were not as successful. In 2019, Virginia was close to passing a similar bill, but it ultimately went nowhere.
Undoubtedly, there will be many challenges in developing a legal framework for telemedicine. Nonetheless, COVID-19 has created a new paradigm that should give regulators the impetus they need to overcome regulatory hurdles. Only through this new lens, alongside industry expert coordination and close collaboration between states, will the full potential of telehealth finally be unlocked.