The World Health Organization’s qualification of coronavirus as a pandemic is already changing the way that cultures and industries across the globe operate. The healthcare industry is at the forefront of this crisis and has been forced to reevaluate its traditional resistance to the telehealth movement.
With the reproductive number, or the number of secondary infections generated from one infected individual, estimated between 2 and 2.5, significantly higher than influenza, it will be essential to the containment of the virus for healthcare providers to limit the number of exposures that those testing positive for COVID-19 have with other patients seeking medical attention.
Enter telehealth. While for some, telehealth might conjure up images of robotic cross-country surgeries and video conference physician visits, the actual definition encompasses a much broader scope of services, including those virtual appointments, but also accounting for home-ordering/home-delivery/home-retrieval of testing supplies and medications, the use of online patient portals to deliver test results and patient education resources, and remote patient monitoring.
Under the advice of many healthcare experts, including the American College of Cardiology and the American College of Physicians, to “consider the important role digital and telehealth services can play to mitigate community spread while allowing clinicians to continue caring for patients,” during times of necessary self-quarantine and social distancing, healthcare providers across the country have been forced to adopt the technologies that many of them have resisted, and the healthcare industry as a whole will be forced to adjust accordingly.
For healthcare providers, the changes will need to come in the form of the quick adoption of telehealth capabilities. While most healthcare providers in the United States should have already transitioned to electronic health records under federal law, and some have begun to utilize online patient portals, embracing telehealth has been slow for many healthcare providers. Such adjustments may mean that providers have to acquire technology that will allow them to conduct video conference patient visits and utilize applications that will allow them to monitor symptoms, including temperature, remotely.
For pharmaceutical companies and labs, as the virus spreads, the challenge will be developing at-home tests that can be mailed to individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms that will either allow for the safe and efficient return of the tests to labs, where the results can be uploaded to a patient portal, or the possibility of a rapid coronavirus test that can be taken and read in the isolation of the patient’s own home.
Many insurers have already begun waiving co-pays for COVID-19 testing, and many provider contracts are being amended to include reimbursement for tests and services related to COVID-19. As healthcare providers begin to adopt more telehealth services, payers will likely experience pressure to cover them at comparable rates to in-person services. This will incentivize them to utilize these necessary precautions to avoid increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission through in-person visits.
Although almost nothing regarding COVID-19 comes with any certainty, the bright side is that it is creating new opportunities for telehealth to thrive long after the pandemic has ceased.