Strong consumer acceptance, positive perception, and flowing investment are helping the telehealth and teledentistry space continue to grow through 2021. Add COVID-19 shutdowns and required safety measures into the mix and telehealth usage has increased almost 4000% since late 2019.
A large driver for this mass adoption has been the pandemic, which has sent consumers scrambling for a way to get safe access to healthcare. This has helped increase the willingness of consumers to use telehealth resources, led to an increase in businesses providing telehealth options, and spurred regulatory changes to help access and offer reimbursements. When normal in-person healthcare became difficult to access, telehealth stepped in to bridge the gap and now has the chance to revolutionize the health care model on the basis of greater access to care, faster patient screening, and increased affordability.
In the US, it was estimated that a massive portion ($250 billion USD) of the country’s healthcare spend during 2020 could be transitioned into the virtual care space. Albeit still only an estimate of market size, this shows the potential of consumers and providers alike continue to find benefit and adopt the technology. Regular healthcare is not diminishing through the rise of telehealth, it is instead being augmented and enhanced to provide better care for all patients leading to more positive treatment outcomes than ever before.
What specialties are seeing the most uptake?
After the drastic increase in telehealth adoption during April 2020, the majority of telehealth use has been in the evaluation and management field. This means telehealth is being used predominantly to triage patients and manage existing cases. Even though telehealth use is becoming widespread in some capacity for many departments, specialties like psychiatry and substance abuse treatment are most common followed by endocrinology, rheumatology, gastroenterology, neurological medicine, and many others.
How do consumers perceive telehealth?
Studies conducted by Mckinsey & Company show that telehealth is viewed as a modality that can play an important part in healthcare, especially looking to the future. In general, telehealth is viewed as a great tool for triaging or giving medical consultations, prescribing medications, and providing specialist referrals without the need for an in-office visit. Roughly 40% of those surveyed stated they would continue to use telehealth moving forward and up to 60% indicated interest in expanded virtual health solutions as a first contact care option.
There is however a distinct gap in what patients need from their healthcare system and what telehealth is able to provide. For instance, telehealth cannot replace any type of hands-on examination or procedures like surgeries, neither can it be used in complicated diagnoses. As stated earlier, telehealth in its current capacity is best suited as a triage and patient management tool that helps reduce the number of in-person appointments that are required. This helps patients save time and money while reducing the strain on the overall healthcare system.
Are physicians on board with telehealth?
The same study found that almost 85% of physicians surveyed were offering some form of virtual healthcare to their patients as of April 2021. Near 60% of those stated they would prefer to continue offering supplementary virtual care options in the future.
What’s next for telehealth?
Virtual healthcare seems to have established itself as a viable care option that makes a lot of sense in a variety of situations. We see that patients and providers continue to have a favorable perception, and the regulatory environment is moving to include virtual care options. The space is also seeing drastically increased investment throughout the last year and a half. The evolution of telehealth is accelerating (boosted by the recent pandemic) and is becoming very common in the medical community.
In order for the virtual healthcare space to continue growing and realize its potential there are three main areas that need to be considered:
Continue to increase the convenience of telehealth for routine care
Telehealth is already a great “digital front door” for many healthcare providers and enables patients to get the initial care they need faster by cutting out at least one in-office appointment. Virtual consultations are also allowing patients to get to the correct professional more easily.
There is also the added benefit for providers who have already begun to roll our virtual healthcare plans that feature much lower premiums and increased convenience. These virtual plans are attracting attention from employers looking to add an extra area of benefit to their contract packages.
Improve access to virtual healthcare, especially in remote communities
Getting to the doctor can be difficult for many people, including seniors, the disabled, or those living in remote areas. This is where telehealth can take some of the load because getting in touch with a medical professional over the phone or a Smart device is much easier than traveling to an in-office appointment.
Another aspect is that many local medical clinics are not able to staff professionals for every specialty. Areas like psychiatry, nutrition, and substance abuse are often neglected in favor of other specialties that are deemed more important. It’s not surprising that telehealth seems to have an edge in these specialty areas because it is able to provide a high standard of care without the need for in-person appointments or in-office staff.
Prove that telehealth has a positive effect on health outcomes
Chronic conditions and post-acute care support are two areas that will benefit from the remote monitoring capabilities of virtual healthcare. If virtual care can continue to expand and prove its positive effect on the health outcomes of patients, it will continue to be adopted and grow exponentially.
Telehealth still faces challenges in widespread adoption
Telehealth is an innovative care tool that is proving to be extremely useful all over the medical field but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles to overcome. There is the need for enhanced integration of data and smoother data flows between various medical institutions, including increased integration into the daily workflow of physicians and care providers to combine virtual and hands-on care. The idea of standardization is also in question so that incentives can be aligned more easily, especially in terms of pricing structures for services.
There are multiple areas for improvement, but telehealth and virtual healthcare have proven to be an effective tool that can speed up and enhance today’s healthcare system.
Dental care is also benefitting from virtual healthcare
While almost any type of healthcare can benefit from virtual consultations, one important area is dental care. Especially with the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, dentists are struggling to take care of their patient’s oral health. This is where teledentistry is able to help pick up some of the slack to keep waiting rooms empty and patients in good health. While oral health care is often a very hands-on process, teledentistry has proven to be a valuable tool according to Ontario dentists Martindale Dental. The clinic implemented teledentistry care for patients soon after the first COVID-19 lockdown hit the province, leveraging it for patient consultations, appointment scheduling, and as a first-contact tool for dental emergencies. As with most other medical fields, dentists are finding that the triage capabilities offered through virtual care have a marked effect on patient intake and cutting down on unnecessary appointments.
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What does the future of virtual health care look like?
Virtual healthcare can provide benefits all across the map, at the very least as a first-contact tool.
Moving forwards, we expect to see things like:
On-demand virtual emergency care can be used as an alternative to emergency room visits. Patients can be consulted or triaged remotely to get an initial diagnosis with advice on what the next steps are for treatment. Often emergencies can be solved with a simple consultation, and if not an urgent care visit can still be promptly arranged.
Instead of visiting your doctor’s office for everything, many routine appointments can be avoided by using a virtual care system. This could include chronic condition checkups, medication prescriptions, cold and flu diagnosis, minor skin conditions, referrals to a specialist, etc. Virtual appointments would become part of an omnichannel care system where the type of professional care is provided based on actual needs.
Virtual home health care is another area where telehealth can be beneficial. For example, physical therapy, remote monitoring, patient or caregiver education, post-surgery care, nutrition care, and much more can all be done effectively through a virtual channel.
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Thanks to modern technology and networks, telehealth has the ability to be adapted to fit into almost every aspect of modern medicine. Moving forward, virtual healthcare will become more readily available throughout every facet of the industry, often in a supplemental role, but always to enhance and speed up the patient care experience while providing a more positive outcome.