The COVID-19 pandemic, and the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods that accompanied it, may come to define 2020, but a few sprigs of hope arising from its ashes could have positive and lasting impact on business and industry.
Stunning advances in science and medicine, for example, yielded highly effective vaccines in record time and should begin reducing fears of uncontrolled spread in the workplace.
Similarly, the pandemic triggered a sudden and sharp increase in use of telehealth services – real time, remote patient and clinician interaction via telephone, smart phone, tablet, or computer. These encounters can include advice, reminders, education, observation, and even monitoring of vital signs.
The pandemic accelerated public awareness and acceptance of telehealth, which health experts predict will increase access to healthcare while helping to corral costs.
“During the pandemic, social distancing has pushed innovation that has allowed doctors and patients – even those who were previously hesitant to do so – to connect virtually,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital BlueCross. “This means continued care for patients, and that’s a good thing for all of us.”
The pandemic’s impact on telehealth use has been notable. Doximity, a nationwide physician organization, recently published its “2020 State of Telemedicine Report” that found:
- 14% of Americans experienced a telehealth appointment prior to the pandemic. That number grew by 57% since the outbreak began.
- Telehealth visits by chronic illness sufferers grew by 77% in the past year.
- 23% of all respondents said they would seek telehealth appointments after the pandemic.
- Physician acceptance is on the rise.
Insurers are doing their part to encourage more telehealth visits. Capital BlueCross, for example, waived member fees for members whose benefits included its Virtual Care app through June 30, 2021 for 24/7 medical visits, as well as by-appointment visits with psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors.
It also waived member fees for certain in-network teledentistry consultations through June 30, 2021 for its BlueCross Dental members.
Capital BlueCross saw use of its Virtual Care app increase 278% since the onset of the pandemic, and mental health visits through the app grew 439%. Telehealth visits by Capital BlueCross members who did not use the Virtual Care app surged from 865 total mental health visits in 2019 to 4,834 visits through mid-December 2020.
“Some people feel more comfortable in their own home having these (mental wellness) conversations,” Dr. Chambers said during a virtual healthcare forum hosted by the Central Penn Business Journal in October.
Telehealth will continue to evolve, Dr. Chambers predicted. “We will see changes in terms of what types of services are more appropriate for a virtual visit,” she said. “Mental health is the one place where I think access to virtual care is paramount.”
Employers, who have an interest in keeping workers healthy and controlling healthcare costs, may benefit from the telehealth trend, many health experts agree:
- For nonurgent concerns, telehealth visits are usually far less costly than visits to emergency rooms or urgent care facilities.
- Convenient virtual visits with a doctor may more quickly determine an employee’s fitness to remain at work and, in some cases, reduce the risk of a sick employee infecting coworkers.
- Employees with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, would likely have easy access to self-management resources and tools that could help them avoid dangerous and costly complications.
Hurdles to widespread telehealth adoption still exist. Employers, as well as providers and payers, need to educate people to soothe deeply rooted skepticism about a relatively unfamiliar form of healthcare.
Capital BlueCross is working to ensure providers have the capability to support quality telehealth, and members have easy access that care.
“The explosion in telehealth is going to continue,” Dr. Chambers said. “I don’t think that this is going away. I think that this is part of our new normal, but we have the opportunity to really define how we want to look moving forward.”