COVID-19: Propelling Telehealth into the Future

March 27, 2020 Health Ideas Staff

A global health crisis has thrust us into a scenario in which lives quite literally depend on our ability to be virtually connected. Following the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, people around the world found themselves suddenly grappling with a new reality impacting nearly every facet of daily life — from the way we work to the way we communicate with our loved ones to the way we access healthcare.

When the coronavirus outbreak began to emerge in the early months of 2020, the financial market took a series of tumultuous turns, with stocks plummeting amid global fear and uncertainty. One sector, however, has largely remained immune to the volatility, with telehealth stocks surging at the time of writing. (In March 2020, Teladoc’s stock prices were up around 16% over the last month, while the Dow Jones was down around 33%.)

From Convenient to Critical

Telehealth has grown in popularity in recent years, as healthcare payers, providers and consumers explore more convenient and efficient care options. The need for virtual care platforms is particularly pronounced for the socioeconomically disadvantaged and other vulnerable populations, for whom access to in-person care may not be viable.

While telehealth has the potential to address several barriers to care, Medicare has been slow to fully embrace virtual care models, with the exception of virtual check-ins and limited telehealth services in designated rural areas. That changed on March 17, 2020, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded access to telehealth services to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and protect vulnerable seniors. Under the temporary expansion, Medicare beneficiaries have access to a broader range of virtual health services, including telehealth visits and e-visits, to avoid having to travel to a healthcare facility and risk exposure to the virus.

A Glimpse at the Future

As Healthcare Dive noted following announcement of the expansion, telehealth providers have long been pushing to get their services covered under Medicare Fee-for-Service. The temporary expansion, made under emergency declaration, shines a glaring light on the critical role of these platforms in managing public and population health. With an unprecedented influx of demand over the past several weeks, telehealth providers are having to massively scale up their operations in order to treat patients in need, while supporting the sustainability of our healthcare system as resources are strained.

In the throes of a global crisis, innovation is accelerated by the need for immediate and effective action, often in a way that endures long after the chaos has subsided. While we are extremely cautious of making forward-looking statements during this difficult and uncertain time, we are learning a great deal about what the future of healthcare may hold. Telehealth and proactive communication platforms are proving to be among our most valuable tools in combatting the COVID-19 crisis — will they remain on the front lines once the dust has settled?

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