For decades, the healthcare system has been fundamentally similar. When patients need treatment, they see health care workers (HCPs) in a doctor’s office, hospital, or outpatient ward. During these face-to-face interactions, healthcare professionals can gather information by listening to what the patient says and what isn’t visually examine the patient’s body and body language; And getting your hands on the patient is often one of the most important ways to start the healing process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this model, creating a perception among patients that healthcare facilities have become one of the riskiest places to be. At the peak of home support requests, personal office visits dropped dramatically. Instead, the use of telemedicine, i.e. the provision of clinical services via telemedicine technology and communication infrastructure has increased significantly. In fact, IQVIA’s research and analysis found that telemedicine absorbed a third of office visits at the start of the pandemic, and the number of remote visits increased tenfold due to pre-pandemic use.
Certainly, telemedicine can be an ideal compromise for patients living in remote areas and for those who are older and/or are at high risk of developing COVID-19. For other patients in low-risk groups, too, remote visits have proven to be a convenient alternative to going to a healthcare facility, waiting for a call, and then waiting a little longer for a call to be seen by a doctor.
How will telemedicine play its important and unique role as the US moves through the pandemic? As the industry advocates increased use of telemedicine, three risks and gaps need to be bridged to make it an important and sustainable part of virtual care.
1. Healthcare professionals must be familiar with telemedicine technology. In June 2020, IQVIA surveyed 1,700 doctors on telemedicine and found that about half were familiar with current technology. Forty percent said they feel uncomfortable, which suggests they are dissatisfied with current options.
2. Healthcare professionals need tools that go beyond “superficial” observations. Telemedicine can be ideal for routine visits and follow-up visits. The nature of remote dating, however, means that a provider can see “the usual” but miss the “unusual,” increasing the chance of misdiagnosis or other medical errors. At the moment, this is probably the biggest risk/gap in telemedicine that could be addressed with better tools and better access to detailed data.
3. The guidelines must support telemedicine. In the United States, the health care system remains a for-profit system, and health workers and health systems must earn adequate incomes. Although COVID-19 has brought temporary relief and CMS and some commercial payers reimburse telemedicine at the same rate as in-person visits, this change is not yet permanent. When full reimbursement guidelines are in place, there will likely be gaps in telemedicine availability. Similar risks and loopholes can be seen with HIPAA and other licensing and accreditation requirements. Although this policy was temporarily relaxed during the pandemic, it must fundamentally change to realize the full potential of telemedicine.
Despite these gaps and risks, I firmly believe in the potential of telemedicine as part of a larger virtual care ecosystem. Telemedicine is here to provide patients with a safe and affordable way to get the care they need. The need for patients to continue routine care and patient safety must remain the cornerstone of care management during the pandemic. The introduction and activation of telemedicine can help us achieve better quality and better results while reducing healthcare costs.