The use of telehealth has exploded as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For it to continue gaining momentum, private and public payers must appropriately reimburse for telehealth, according to the latest report from Insights by Xtelligent Healthcare Media.

Healthcare leaders will continue to invest in telehealth tools and infrastructure. But organizations need support from public and private payers for the technology to continue to grow after the pandemic, revealed Insights by Xtelligent Healthcare Media’s latest report.

The Future of Healthcare: Moving Beyond 2020 surveyed 363 healthcare stakeholders to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted organizations across the healthcare industry from payers to providers. Building off of earlier work at the start of the pandemic, the report articulates how industry leaders plan to move forward and adjust to the new normal of care delivery.

A key piece of the industry’s response to COVID-19 was telehealth.

At the start of the pandemic, many physician practices shut their doors to elective or non-essential appointments in order to keep patients safe. But many patients still needed chronic or emergent care, so providers transitioned to telehealth. Traditional in-person appointments were quickly conducted over videoconferencing or the phone.

“By the beginning of April, we were at 100-percent video visits,” said one multi-site primary care organization representative during qualitative follow-up.

This organization was not unique. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported the average number of telehealth visits conducted prior to the pandemic was 13,000 a week. But in the last week of April, Medicare providers completed almost 1.7 million telehealth visits. 

It is unsurprising that 65 percent of all respondents said telehealth was going to be the biggest area of investment for their organization moving forward. Patients and providers alike saw the ease of use for the technology and its role in ensuring patients received the care they need while staying safe and minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

Telehealth use took off because prior restrictions around reimbursement and licensure were relaxed throughout the pandemic. Nearly all survey respondents (95 percent) believe these telehealth flexibilities should remain after the coronavirus public health emergency has ended.

Specific telehealth flexibilities saw a lot of support from survey respondents as 79 percent wanted more authorized types of providers to remain. Another 78 percent hoped expanded telehealth modalities continued and 77 percent promoted improved reimbursement moving forward. 

These restrictions previously limited telehealth’s range of impact. But recently, CMS proposed expanding telehealth reimbursement permanently. The specific types of visits included in this proposal are not outlined yet but CMS is asking for public input to determinant this.

The proposal is particularly promising given nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of all survey respondents said better public reimbursement was the single biggest barrier to telehealth’s growth at their organization.

Twenty-two percent of respondents said support from private payers was the biggest challenge to telehealth’s growth. So nearly half of survey respondents saw reimbursement as the biggest barrier to telehealth adoption, implementation, and success.  

“Telehealth is here to stay,” one academic health system representative pointed out during qualitative follow-up. “But prior to COVID, telehealth was here. Many insurances just didn’t cover it. This has opened the door for insurance companies to see its importance,” said an academic health system representative.

Both private and public payers must continue to adequately reimburse for telehealth services if it is to continue being a tool physicians leverage to safely and timely meet patient’s needs.  

The Future of Healthcare: Moving Beyond 2020 highlights the industry’s coronavirus response and emphasizes strategies for moving forward in three key areas: telehealth, value-based care, and patient experience. The full report can be found here.

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