COVID-19 led to a surge in the use of telehealth―and will likely have lasting impacts on the delivery of health care into the foreseeable future. Yet while emerging telehealth modalities accelerated as a result of the pandemic, the future popularity and utilization will largely be driven by continued regulatory changes, provider reimbursement, and accessibility challenges.
Telehealth Isn’t a Single Modality
While people often talk about telehealth as one category or channel of care, it’s actually a collection of opportunities that exist outside of brick-and-mortar offices and facilities.
The four main telehealth modalities are live video, mobile health, remote patient monitoring, and store and forward, consisting of pre-recorded videos, images and/or documents containing medical information sent from patient to provider via secure email. Remote patient monitoring–often referred to as wearable technology―continues to see a steady increase.
Provider Investment in Enabling Technologies
The pandemic caused regulatory bodies and insurers to adapt, allowing for incentivized, easier care delivery. For example, on the federal level, a relaxation of rules surrounding HIPAA secure technology allowed traditional brick-and-mortar providers to move into teleheath without making a significant investment in new technology. If the changes impacting providers roll back to pre-pandemic rules, these same medical profesionals would need to debate the long-term value of purchasing expensive technologies to comply with regulations vs. the reimbursement rates for these services.
Incentives & Compensation Play a Role
Considerations for providers include compensation and time resources. If providers earn significantly less from virtual care than in-person visits, telehealth will not be prioritized. Reimbursement also varies carrier by carrier. This can result in significant diffrences in telehealth offerings given the structure of a providers’ practice. For example, group practices that offer in-house laboratory or imaging services have different incentives for in-person visits than a standalone provider who refers testing to a third party.
Accessibility Gets a Spotlight
Finally, as the popularity of telehealth soared, various accessibility issues were magnified, including patient connectivity. Without reliable internet access and the use of a smartphone, laptop or computer with a webcam, a physician’s ability to deliver care is impaired, and patient adoption decreases. In addition, individuals of higher socioeconomic status are the first to adopt and benefit most from the introduction of innovative technologies in health, creating and widening social inequalities. The possibility of currently eased cost-share regulations tightening back to pre-COVID-19 standards may also meaningfully impact how employers develop their future cost-sharing plan with employees. While pushed to offer $0 access during the pandemic, will the benefits of increased access outweigh employers’ fiscal concerns to maintain these cost-share levels?
The positive impact of telehealth as well as awareness of these emerging issues are important considerations for employers moving forward to develop a robust, holistic virtual care strategy.
Want to dig deeper? Check out our in-depth article on Telehealth: Access, Utilization, Challenges and The Future Landscape.