The COVID-19 pandemic has advanced the use of telehealth throughout the country, but the need to reach more patients, improve quality and efficiency, and cope with growing clinician shortages should continue to drive the expansion of telehealth even after the pandemic is over.
Hundreds of new companies are now providing telehealth services, while dozens of bills have been introduced in Congress to remove barriers, expand Medicare and Medicaid coverage, enhance and stabilize reimbursements, boost use for substance abuse and other psychiatric treatment, and generally authorize wider utilization. At the state level, there are more than 200 bills pending in legislatures.
The next few years could see even greater flourishing of telehealth as it becomes an integral part of our nation’s clinical healthcare services, and particularly if legislation passes to expand its use. The Biden administration is expected to address healthcare reform, and telehealth could be a prominent factor.
The promise of telehealth is not just in the delivery technology but in the innovative ways that digital information and virtual care can enhance patient care and extend the reach of nurses, physicians, therapists, and other healthcare providers who serve patients. As with any healthcare delivery system, telehealth is primarily about the relationship between healthcare professionals and patients. Innovation in telehealth is how healthcare professionals and healthcare organizations can use virtual care delivery to help more people and improve quality.
Pandemic and Beyond
If telehealth is effective during a pandemic, it can be effective afterward too. The current focus on telehealth may be about COVID-19, but we need to think about it as a permanent, integrated care delivery system.
Telehealth helps solve the complexities of care delivery by bringing specialties and other services to places where people don’t have access to them, or where practitioner shortages are acute and appointment delays are long. Telehealth is not always about one practitioner seeing one patient, it can also bolster team care by bringing together multiple stakeholders in real time — any combination of nurses, therapists, general practitioners, specialists, care coordinators, social workers, family members, interpreters, and others depending on need.
In fact, telehealth can enhance almost every care setting through the addition of complementary clinical care, even expanding population health and wellness through mobile and desktop applications and improving health equity by bringing more and better care to underserved populations. These and many other benefits from telehealth can be vital to patient care in the pandemic — and far beyond it.
Integration and adaption of remote monitoring tools with telehealth can transform post-hospital discharge and care for people with multiple chronic conditions — situations that are increasingly important with the rapid aging of the U.S. population. Other innovations include the integration of everyday consumer health devices, such as glucose and heart monitors, which can expand telehealth to many more people and shift care to the home, while also controlling costs.
Help for Healthcare Organizations
For many healthcare organizations, telehealth is a new care environment where they have little experience. In addition to clinicians trained and experienced in telehealth, they may need expertise and analytics in finding and optimizing opportunities for utilizing telehealth. They may need workforce technology tools to integrate telehealth into their existing clinical services, such as on-screen interpreters and integrated diagnostic devices for patients, or mobile applications for consultation and scheduling among practitioners.
Telehealth can also be used by healthcare organizations and practitioners for talent acquisition and finding jobs. Virtual applications are becoming vital for processes for clinical staffing, such as licensure, credentialing, recruitment, interviewing, placement, and onboarding.
All these services are dependent on the people who provide them. Most telehealth companies today are technology companies; few provide the staffing, clinical, analytical, or management expertise to meet the needs of patients and healthcare organizations. Staffing a virtual care environment is very different than staffing a hospital or clinic, because practitioners need to be trained or experienced in helping people via telehealth.
Some Uncertainty, More Optimism
Telehealth utilization skyrocketed during the pandemic as licensure restrictions eased and healthcare providers were allowed enhanced reimbursement for many new telehealth services. However, several major private insurers are pulling back some of their coverage of telehealth for non-COVID health issues.
Despite some recent uncertainty about reimbursements, telehealth is expected to continue to expand, especially if policy questions regarding reimbursement, state licensure, and other barriers can be addressed by legislation and regulatory decisions by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Telehealth can be a game-changing innovation in healthcare that expands access to care for more people who need it while providing specialty care for people who otherwise can’t get it. Because of its flexibility, telehealth can be integrated into almost any existing care environment or combined with other services to create new innovations in patient care. But as with all healthcare services, telehealth is only as good as the skills, caring, and vision of the people who utilize it. People are the key to success in any healthcare delivery system.
Maureen Huber is President of Workforce Technology Solutions at AMN Healthcare.