Evolution of Telehealth
Telehealth is certainly not new, but COVID-19 accelerated engagement by years as people mitigated their risks and concerns about going to hospitals and provider offices. Already accustomed to interacting with retail and banking providers online, they realized how easily they could also interact with healthcare professionals without sacrificing quality care. According to a McKinsey study, “Consumer adoption has skyrocketed, from 11 percent of U.S. consumers using telehealth in 2019 to 46 percent of consumers now using telehealth to replace canceled healthcare visits. Providers have rapidly scaled offerings and are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before.”
Increased adoption and patient engagement will require increased categorization of the types of services provided by both hospitals and other healthcare facilities to triage conditions to determine whether an in-person visit is warranted. That will help hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics evolve what diagnosis and treatment they do in office and what is appropriate to start at home.
Even before the pandemic, there was an unmet demand for healthcare services because people were anxious about visiting a doctor, it wasn’t convenient or an array of other reasons. Telehealth can help people engage with providers earlier in the care cycle, especially for pre-acute or chronic maintenance conditions. This applies both to a generation who is accustomed to life online as well as an older group who became more tech savvy out of necessity during the pandemic and is now more likely to engage with a provider differently.
Providing telehealth services can free office time for those cases where it’s needed, and it achieves another goal—access to healthcare for otherwise underserved communities. There’s a misconception that people in those communities don’t have as much access to connectivity. That might be true in the context of fixed broadband, but the penetration of smartphones is high, even in lower-income brackets. According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of Americans earning less than $30,000 per year own a smartphone as well as 80% of those living in rural areas.
Advancements in Care Models
The McKinsey study also identified five specific models appropriate for virtual care: On-demand urgent care; virtual office visits; near-virtual office visits; virtual home health services; and tech-enabled home medication administration. Each segment offers viable possibilities to extend telehealth outside traditional parameters, resulting in substantial volume shifted from office visits and outpatient care. This could mean billions in healthcare spending shifted to virtual or near-virtual care. It also means the industry behind the necessary products and technology has to provide integrated, multifunctional solutions.
Companies create sensors that can monitor a host of biometrics in a single device that is simple to use yet provides meaningful data that takes the telehealth experience beyond a conference call into actionable information.
Correctly implemented, that data can become part of remote care management for both acute and chronic conditions. A patient who might have been kept in hospital post-surgery could be sent home for monitoring via the right sensors. Or a community hospital could keep an ICU patient who’s monitored remotely. Even pre-COVID, hospitals and payers were starting to pilot discharging patients to a more controlled environment, such as a hotel, especially when there was uncertainty about the ability for the patients to receive appropriate care in their home settings, with appropriate monitoring equipment.
Chronic conditions can benefit from advancements in artificial intelligence that analyze data to alert the patient or provider regarding specific biometric measures. It’s first-level triage that helps prevent condition deterioration from reaching a crisis point thereby providing pre-emptive versus reactive care. That’s a major value point, both to the patient and to the insurer. A patient with daily monitoring of blood glucose levels could stay on a maintenance path instead of deteriorating to a crisis situation that ends up with an ER or hospital visit. A key factor is equipment that a patient doesn’t have to think about and can be accurately monitored by a healthcare professional.
Influence of Regulatory and Payer Factions
That shift to pre-emptive care through remote diagnostics is one factor driving payer influence as insurers become more active in care management and patient management through proactive monitoring. They already see the value in managing the overall care cycle through remote patient monitoring (RPM) to prevent condition deterioration and even for more general, preventive engagement for fitness and wellness.
On the regulatory front, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights issued an FAQ on telehealth and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that establishes the practice as more than temporary COVID-19 exceptions. This will help in the long run to establish more standardization and consistency. A push for medical-grade technology and coordinated systems provides more credibility to the data. It also supports clinical validation of medically relevant information. In the long run, companies that provide an end-to-end package with medical-grade sensors, monitoring capability and a data platform can fully support a viable telehealth endeavor.
Opportunities for Broader Influence
With comprehensive monitoring and telehealth options, healthcare providers have access to a wealth of data. That data doesn’t only impact individuals; it provides a bigger picture at a population level. A statistically significant sample can help devise new treatment patterns or better understand trends. Coupled with socioeconomic or environmental data, the derived information can make a much bigger impact than short-term, single patient care. It can be a new way of pivoting away from data collection focused mostly on administrative purposes to data that leads to real insights that can overall improve care.