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Telemedicine Thrives During COVID-19 Outbreak

While the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on many industries, it’s been a boon to many others.

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One industry that has seen its stock rise the past month is telemedicine, which has proven to be especially essential amid the global pandemic. Telemedicine platforms are uniquely positioned for a health crisis such as this when it’s recommended that patients who could be cared for at home don’t go to the doctor so as not to increase the likelihood they contract and spread the virus and contribute to clogging up a health-care system that is already stretched thin.

“By using virtual care for much regular, necessary medical care, and deferring elective procedures or annual checkups, we free up medical staff and equipment needed for those who become seriously ill from COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Lee H. Schwamm in the Harvard Health Blog. “Additionally, by not congregating in small spaces like waiting rooms, we thwart the ability of the virus to hop from one person to another. Keeping people apart is called ‘social distancing.’ Keeping health-care providers apart from patients and other providers is ‘medical distancing.’ Telehealth is one strategy to help us accomplish this.”

The concept of telemedicine isn’t new, of course. In fact, 88% of organizations offered telemedicine services in 2019, according to WorldatWork’s “2019 Inventory of Total Rewards Programs & Practices” survey. The utilization of the service, however, is extremely low in comparison, as Mercer’s “National Survey of Health of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans” found that just 9% of employees used the service in 2019.

Mary Kay O’Neill, partner and clinical services consultant at Mercer, surmised the reason for that is as simple as the saying “old habits die hard.”

“Using telemedicine requires a behavior change from people,” she said. “So, if you’ve never done it and you have experience going to your physician who is reasonably good, you might wonder why you’d call somebody for that service instead. With anything new, there’s always that ‘barrier-to-entry’ element.”

Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, a behavior change is being forced. While it’s too early to point toward data indicating a significant rise in utilization, it’s reasonable to deduct that there’s been an uptick in patients using telemedicine solutions across the globe. In recent weeks, there’s been numerous local governments taking action to make telehealth services more readily available:

  • In the United Kingdom, the NHS has launched a new online tool to manage coronavirus queries, with over 70,000 people accessing the tool in less than a week.
  • In China, 50% of all medical care has been moved online.
  • In the United States, reimbursement restrictions on telehealth for Medicare patients will be waived following the passage of the coronavirus emergency funding package and insurers are waiving telehealth fees.

While the barriers to entry have been breached because of this pandemic, it’s worth wondering if telemedicine has staying power in a post-COVID-19 world. O’Neill, in rather prescient fashion, blogged about whether the outbreak would be a “tipping point” for telehealth back in late February. Much of what’s held back its widespread adoption — that is, various regulations — are likely to return once the storm has passed.

However, it’s possible both doctors and patients will see the benefits of use, triggering it to be accessed more prevalently.

“There will probably be a huge lobby to not revert from a regulatory perspective in a way that would limit physicians from providing care in this way,” O’Neill said. “But it will be interesting to see if people experience the convenience of telehealth interaction with their own physician if that will hurt the vendors in the space or if the familiarity with the process will increase that utilization with those vendors.”

O’Neill added that she’s hopeful a compromise can be reached, as it’s a way to ultimately lessen the strain on the health-care system with quick, convenient solutions.

“Everyone is trying to make it as easy as possible to have their medical needs met without having to show up — bringing care to patient and not the patients to care,” she said. “To see what happens as patients and physicians get used to doing this kind of interaction and figuring out about how to focus this in the longer-term for delivering care in this way.”

TELEMEDICINE ROUNDUP

 

Coming of Age Amid a Pandemic
This Employee Benefit News article notes that as the coronavirus pandemic spreads, many workers are increasingly turning to their employer-provided telehealth options. Among the most used applications of telehealth have been in the mental health space, as more employees are utilizing mindfulness and meditation support.

E-Health Goes Viral
As the world slows down, the demand for eHealth is going viral — and it is happening fast and globally, writes Vasileios Nittas, an epidemiologist from the University of Zurich. Nittas examines both the strengths and weaknesses of telemedicine and how it can be best utilized during the pandemic.

How Health-Care Providers Are Optimizing Virtual Care
The American Journal of Managed Care writes that as the regulations surrounding telehealth continue to be modified, health insurance providers have enacted their own emergency plans to protect and care for beneficiaries. The article outlines how these providers are responding and increasing their capacity to keep up with the prevalence of telehealth requests.

Companies Rope in Mental Health Experts for Teleworkers
Microsoft, P&G and Deloitte are among companies that have sought professional assistance to help employees tackle the psychological turmoil from prolonged social distancing in India, reports the Economic Times of India.

About the Author

Brett Christie Bio Image

Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.