Telehealth is growing in popularity as a way to connect patients with healthcare providers. The benefits of telehealth technology includes improved access to care, increased convenience, and cost savings. Telehealth can be used for a variety of purposes, such as providing mental health services or monitoring chronic conditions. As telehealth becomes more common, it is likely to play an increasingly important role in the evolution of healthcare. But can it deliver on its promise?
In the CareTalk episode, "How Telehealth is Changing Healthcare," hosts John Driscoll and David Williams traced the meteoric growth of telehealth's popularity, its benefits and how it can continue to improve care delivery in the United States.
What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is a broad term that can include a wide range of technology-enabled health care services. Essentially, it refers to any service that allows doctors and patients to connect remotely, whether through video conferencing, emailing, or texting.
While there are some skeptics who question its effectiveness, telehealth is increasingly being recognized as a valuable tool for improving patient care.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Telehealth?
Fewer Office Visits
One of the main ways that telehealth reduces costs is by reducing the need for office visits. With telehealth, patients can consult with their doctor or specialist from the comfort of their own homes. This not only saves the patient time and money on travel, but it also frees up appointments for other patients who need to be seen in person.
Reduced Missed Appointments
Another way that telehealth reduces costs is by reducing missed appointments. When patients can see their doctors virtually, they are less likely to miss appointments due to work or childcare commitments. This means that healthcare providers can see more patients and bill for more appointments, which increases revenue.
Reduced Administrative Costs
One of Telehealth's greatest benefits is that it reduces costs. Telehealth reduces costs because it requires less staff to administer care. With fewer staff members needed, healthcare companies can save money on salaries and benefits. Telehealth frees up administrative staff members so they can focus on other tasks, such as billing and coding.
Increased Access to Care
While telehealth has traditionally been associated with providing patient consultations from specialists in remote locations, recent advances in telehealth technology have allowed for greater usage across various healthcare settings. By increasing access to care and reducing the need for patients to travel for appointments, telehealth can help improve the quality of care for individuals living with chronic conditions or other health issues. In particular, telehealth enables patients to receive more timely care without being restricted by geographical location. Overall, telehealth represents an important tool in further modernizing healthcare delivery and improving patient outcomes.
How Has the Growth of Telehealth Increased?
"The reality is that telehealth has been available since the early days of the internet. There were innovators like Teladoc and and MDLIVE and others that were aggregators of technology that they would provide to doctors. But doctors fought it because they've always been busy enough. Insurance companies didn't like to pay for it because their fear was that it's another thing to pay for between the time a person actually gets to see the doctor. But I think what we saw under the COVID-19 crisis, when one of the most dangerous things you could do (outside of getting COVID) was visit a place where people with COVID were getting care, was actually leveraging technology. CareCentrix did it with home health agencies. Doctors did it in their offices. Mental health specialists did it over the phone. And whether it's video or chat. And chat could be in real time or it could be text. I think a lot of patients actually felt really good about it. It was like a one-time massive social test." - John (CareTalk)
Do People Prefer Telehealth to In-Person Visits?
"In Massachusetts, Telehealth visits were like 80% of visits at the height of the pandemic, up from 1% pre-COVID. Now, they've drifted back down more toward 20% or so. We want to make sure we don't lose out on what we learned during the pandemic. Some studies have shown that like 80 to 95% of patients said they like telehealth. There was one study that said 41% would've chosen telehealth even if an in-person visit was available. We can't forget this when the public health emergency ends and we're sort of back to normal." - David (CareTalk)
"It's a really good point. I think the assumption of healthcare, the system, the sort of the industry that represents healthcare is it massively undervalues the time of the patients and their families and caregivers. And often, healthcare, I mean, how do you have a consumer industry that's about caring for vulnerable people, that always ask you to wait for an appointment to access it? I think that one of the great things about telehealth, to your point, is really the convenience." - John (CareTalk)
Telehealth Innovation During the Pandemic
"Some of the most interesting innovations during the public health and emergency were things like texting for teens who have vulnerable mental health issues. Telehealth visits for therapists that helped calm down a lot of the anxiety and depression that people had. And the avoidance of an ER visit for an ear ache or a sore throat where doctors and nurse practitioners could take care of young mothers over the phone, I think you're absolutely right. We have to make sure we preserve this because there's still a long regulatory overhang of local doctors' associations and hospitals and some insurance companies that are skeptical, but we prove this can work.
At a time when really we know that we need to provide more on-ramps for vulnerable patients, I'm really concerned that the system will snap back and create either a regulatory or a reimbursement challenge for visits that actually are leading to healthier lives for people." - John (CareTalk)
Telehealth for Mental Health and Behavioral Health
"Mental health and behavioral health are areas where the demand totally spiked during the public health emergency. Both tend to be great use cases for telehealth. It works very well because of the nature of the condition. It makes it easier to treat at a distance. Also, the shortage of mental health workers and the need to try to match people up with somebody who's gonna be a fit for them means that the broader geographic scope is gonna be better. It's not as good for things where you need to do a lot of really hands-on with the patient. But mental health by its nature is not something where, you know, there's a lot of physical exam."- David (CareTalk)
Can Telehealth Deliver On Its Promise or is it Overhyped?
"I think it overdelivered in mental health. It overdelivered in terms of access to basic primary care. And we're kind of figuring it out with specialist care, but I think we're very much in the early innings of accessing technology to kind of give people the self care options and to actually extend more care, which is absolutely essential." - John (CareTalk)
"I don't think it's overhyped. I think that telehealth can have a gigantic impact and we have to make sure that we don't put back the restrictions that were in place from an insurance and administrative standpoint and that we don't let ourselves forget the silver lining of the pandemic as really to say, I don't need to be a patient sitting at the doctor's office forever. I don't need to cut off care from people that can't take off a half day from work.
I think it's too bad that it's taken 20 years, you know, for us to begin to have these capabilities with telehealth. I don't want to see telehealth appointments come back down to 20%, 5%, 2%. I want see it go 50%, 75%. I think that's where it belongs." - David (CareTalk)
What Does the Future Hold for Telehealth?
With the integration of artificial intelligence, the future of telehealth holds endless possibilities for optimizing patient care. As AI healthcare technology continues to advance, healthcare providers can leverage it to create personalized treatment plans, develop innovative diagnostic tools, and even predict potential health issues before they occur.
Not only could this drive better health outcomes, but it could also save time and resources for both patients and healthcare providers. It's an exciting time for the healthcare industry, and the potential for telehealth and AI to revolutionize it is nothing short of awe-inspiring. However, like with telehealth, there are many AI challenges in healthcare. Time will tell just how much these technologies will actually impact the future of healthcare.
CareTalk is the only healthcare podcast that tells it like it is. Join hosts John Driscoll (President U.S. Healthcare and EVP, Walgreens Boots Alliance) and David Williams (President, Health Business Group) as they provide an incisive, no B.S. view of the US healthcare industry.