Seemingly overnight, the United States has gone from hesitant about telehealth to embracing it, with COVID-19 forcing people out of their doctor’s offices and onto their laptops, smartphones, and tablets.
“I don’t think healthcare delivery, billing or coding will ever be the same,” Kem Tolliver, CMPE, CPC, CMOM, president of Medical Revenue Cycle Specialists in Maryland, tells HealthLeaders. “As an industry, I think we’ve been forced to innovate, not just for the sake of reimbursement but to stop the spread of a deadly virus.”
Certainly, reimbursement for telehealth is the most important factor in boosting usage. But another, maybe overlooked, element in the telehealth boom is the the sudden use of the technology by swaths of consumers and providers who may not have ever done so otherwise.
“Telehealth has been around for a long time, and yet the US population has been relatively slow to adopt this mode of receiving care in large numbers,” Gurpreet Singh, partner and health services leader at PwC, tells HealthLeaders. “Prior to the pandemic 49% of consumers with employer coverage said they are willing to use telehealth in place of an in-person visit.”
However, consumer attitudes seem to be quickly changing. According to a new SYKES consumer survey fielded in late March:
Whether this increased demand for telehealth continues post-pandemic depends largely on two main factors: Government rules and reimbursement remaining relaxed and a willingness by patients and providers to try the technology.
“The game changer for telehealth post pandemic is a whole new population will now have the experience of using the technology for the first time,” Singh says. “Generally, consumers are reluctant to try new care delivery methods, but many are getting a crash course in the experience now.”
The same is true for healthcare providers, even those who have never used the technology until very recently.
“The pandemic has not only increased consumer experience with telehealth but also clinician experience. Many doctors and nurses are becoming telehealth providers out of necessity. Health organizations are finding it is a great way to keep clinicians productive that may be in quarantine or unable to work in an in person setting,” he says.
“Post pandemic there will be a new cohort of clinicians who are experienced as telehealth providers and may want to continue to provide these services on a fulltime or part time basis.”
Reimbursement was already trending toward increased usage of the technology.
“Payers and employers have been adding telehealth services to benefits packages and making cost sharing for these visits lower than for visits to physician offices and emergency departments. In 2016, 41% of employers offered the benefit; in 2019, 86% did,” Singh says.
“Some plans are offering free telehealth visits for COVID-19 to minimize the number of patients presenting at emergency departments,” Singh says.
The key to keeping the new telehealth reimbursement and rules in place will be advocacy and getting involved in legislative efforts, says Tolliver.
“This is really an area where health leaders can really direct legislators, to educate them, and to guide them on what’s necessary in order to keep our patients healthy,” she says. “Also, getting the input from our physicians, I think, is going to be critical in that lobbying process.”