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When the pandemic hit, health systems across the U.S. rapidly scaled their telehealth platforms to meet the urgent demand for virtual care. The federal government and commercial payers relaxed regulations around telehealth to cover additional services and boost pay rates so health systems could continue to operate safely in the virtual environment.

CIOs and their IT teams now are focused on developing permanent and sustainable infrastructure for telehealth, anticipating continued demand after the pandemic wanes. Patients are now comfortable with virtual care and will expect the convenience of telehealth visits in the future. The next frontier will be for hospitals to curate their digital health and virtual care offerings for a more personalized patient experience. Health systems with easy-to-use technology and appealing interfaces will be more attractive to patients expecting retail-like healthcare delivery.

In the following roundup, you will find the latest trends in telehealth and discover how C-suite executives of leading health systems are developing strategies to make telehealth a revenue-generator in the future.

The Wave of Telehealth Adoption During COVID-19

The unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19 has ushered in a new age of telehealth that has not always been present—but a phase that many hope is here to stay. Between 2016 and 2019 alone, tele-visit usage doubled from 14 to 28 percent. The health care industry has seen an upward trend in adopting digital health solutions for improved patient care, like tele-visits and remote patient monitoring, even prior to COVID-19. 

Although the story being written from telehealth usage data is not yet concluded, its past narrative dictates the anecdote of the future. 

“Through telehealth, we can triage patients and help avoid unnecessary visits to health care settings, thereby reducing exposure to the COVID-19 virus and helping to keep our front lines safe, ensuring they have the resources needed to take on this immense challenge,” says Russell Libby, MD, a pediatrician and board member at Physicians Foundation.

Supportive resources for telehealth implementation 

Supportive resources for implementation have migrated into the clinical environment. The first Digital Health Implementation Playbook focused on remote patient monitoring was released in 2018. Its release was on the heels of the 2019 remote patient monitoring (RPM) codes and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) coverage.

Remote patient monitoring guidance was not robust enough; a clear need for implementation was evident, especially once COVID-19 hit. The second Playbook in the series was in development ahead of COVID-19’s emergence and released in April of this year. Accordingly, the AMA became a leading resource for physicians, care teams and other industry stakeholders. 

Industry impact amidst a pandemic

Expansion of coverage and lifting of geographic restrictions with other policy changes have supported access to telehealth services during the public health emergency.

“The tools and guidelines being created now are already helping many to use telehealth and will continue to help define its role at this moment and shape the future of physician practice,” says Libby.

No one could have predicted the public health emergency and the impact it would have on the health care industry; but with the explosion of telehealth use during the COVID pandemic, doors have opened to collect data to assess its impact on cost savings, access and quality of care.

Demand for vendor solutions

Vendors have experienced an influx in demand for their solutions providing video visit capability, remote monitoring and other asynchronous ways to connect physicians and patients virtually. With such a significant, rapid increase in demand, it has been challenging for vendors to keep up at times; however, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has relaxed its enforcement of privacy law on telehealth during the public health emergency (PHE), making it easier for many physicians to utilize non-traditional telehealth technologies like FaceTime and Skype for video visits and easing burden on vendors. 

It’s unclear which, if any, of the changes made during the COVID pandemic will remain in place permanently, but as data privacy and security remains a hot topic across the industry, telehealth vendors can likely expect an additional surge at some point if these technologies are no longer able to be used to facilitate video visits. 

Similar to many other health care technologies, numerous factors exist, driving adoption and scale. Vendors do have the ability to control key areas that are important for end users, including usability, customer service, interoperability and privacy and security practices. 

Sustaining the momentum 

Imagining telehealth before COVID-19 in many aspects will be like trying to recall a time before hospitals and clinics. Utilization and outcomes data, and physician and patient experiences will be crucial to showing the long-term value of telehealth. 

“Looking into the future, it’s likely telehealth has a bigger role to play in health care in a post-COVID world. It won’t replace in-person care as the norm; however, its expansion, especially within physician practices, will open up the door for increased access and convenience for patients, while maintaining continuity of care and preserving the patient-physician relationship,” concludes Barron.

Telehealth is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. 

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