For most Americans, normal routines have been turned upside-down by the current COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes healthcare.
Experts are advising that people stay home as much as possible, which is driving millions to remote work and major business disruptions. While most healthcare settings remain open, many patients may be wary to visit their doctor, which has opened the door to telehealth.
Many large employers already offer access to virtual healthcare through their plans, says Mei Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, and they should be actively urging their workers to take advantage of that benefit.
“If you do offer it, you should be encouraging your workers to utilize it as much they can,” Kwong says. She acknowledges that telehealth isn’t a perfect fit for every medical need—sometimes there are still situations where a patient needs to see a physician in person—but it can be an important resource in today’s environment. “If you can use the technology safely and effectively, definitely take advantage of it right now.”
Kwong notes telehealth can have benefits both when a patient needs routine care and also if he or she is infected with COVID-19.
“If patients who just have scheduled regular visits can get them over telehealth, that minimizes their risk of exposure for them. And if you are infected and in quarantine, you can still get services without exposing other people to what you have,” she says. “It’s all about minimum exposure for everyone, including healthcare workers.”
Kwong has been working in the field of telehealth advocacy for 10 years and has seen a gradual uptick in its incorporation into the healthcare field over that time. She believes the COVID-19 pandemic will rapidly speed up that adoption, including among employers.
“Before COVID-19, I would tell people, ‘It’s just going to take time for people to adjust [to using telehealth regularly]’ because it’s a shift in how we’re used to receiving healthcare. But we’re being forced into that with COVID-19.”
The current situation is increasing awareness about the availability of telehealth and, once patients do utilize it, Kwong says, they often see the value of relying on it when appropriate.
“I would not have wanted the push to be our current situation, but I think it is going to push telehealth to the forefront of people’s minds,” she says. “We’re in a new world now where we have the opportunity to receive healthcare in a different way.”