Is COVID-19 proving the need for telehealth?

Published April 1st, 2020

By Hunter Byrnes, Head of Customer Success and Strategy for Workpath

You’re hearing it every day in the news now — hospital systems are being overrun with patients seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19, along with the normal slew of car accident patients, chest pains, and, as ER docs will tell you: man colds. (By the way: please do our healthcare professionals a favor and stay away from ERs unless you have a true emergency).

As ICUs and beds fill up, healthcare leaders are seeking innovative ways to provide testing to patients outside of medical centers. Many cities are doing drive-through testing lines. Groups in Seattle are delivering test kits to patients’ doors after completion of an online survey. And telehealth visits are becoming more common. For all its human and economic destruction, the COVID-19 outbreak may prove to be the moment telehealth became mainstream.

These times of crisis highlight the benefit of technology and the need for public health resources in the home and outside of traditional facilities.

As leaders are coming to realize, the ideal solution is proactivity — reaching patients where they are, before they are sick, versus treating them reactively in hospitals.

Technologies help providers treat those patients in their homes — preventing unnecessary travel, physical contact, and risk of exposure.

What we have long known is that the U.S. is the crème de la crème for acute and specialized care. Patients want to be in the U.S., and sometimes travel from all over the world, for the least invasive surgeries with the best results.

However, when it comes to population health and emergency preparedness, there are different schools of thought about whether the U.S. is up to par — and by all indications, as the U.S. leads the world in the COVID-19 outbreak cases, we’re not there. Our response to the coronavirus is testing us in a big way, and it could expose some of our inadequacies in population health response and preventative healthcare.

COVID-19 driving spike in telehealth

Due to the coronavirus, we’ve seen even more people use telehealth, and the pandemic has underscored its value.

Telehealth is a logical solution for COVID-19 testing, considering that people can put themselves in danger by merely leaving their homes.

Those who experience COVID-19 symptoms and go to hospitals for testing can endanger medical staff, other hospital patients in waiting rooms, and anyone else who they come in contact with along the way.

Those risks can be largely avoided using telehealth and at-home providers. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. and world are facing a limited supply of tests, along with a massive shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that can protect providers and patients against exposure to the virus. If our providers had proper PPE and tests, at-home testing paired with telehealth could make a big impact.

Secondly, during the pandemic, older and immunocompromised patients— who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 — could be at greater risk just from receiving their typical in-facility health services that are totally unrelated to the coronavirus.

Elderly patients getting routine blood pressure checkups or results from previous tests could walk into a doctor’s office healthy but then become exposed to the coronavirus along the way, simply by leaving their homes for a doctor’s visit.

It’s a healthcare catch-22 for seniors, but it’s one that telehealth can help prevent.

In addition to letting patients lean on phone calls and video chats with physicians, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the reality that, sometimes, it makes a lot more sense for tests to come to patients than for patients to go to the tests.

While that’s true for coronavirus testing, it’s also true in other circumstances.

Some tests can be self-administered. Others can be performed by nurses or other healthcare providers.

In the case of coronavirus, for example, couriers can conceivably drop off test-kits to the patient to collect a specimen, and then patients can have a courier deliver those tests to a lab without anybody being exposed to the virus in the meantime.

What will we learn from the pandemic?

For now, coronavirus has a foothold on the U.S., but after the crisis abates, medical professionals and political leaders will have a lot of takeaways from this pandemic (to say the least) that must be put into action to prevent another similar human and economic catastrophe. Emergency preparedness plans, required by health organizations as a mandate to achieve accreditation, will be updated to account for what we learn from our response to the coronavirus. And the increased reliance on telehealth will expose some of its benefits and areas of weakness.

The U.S. should also learn from testing procedures in other countries.

For example, the U.S. has created drive-through testing centers, in which the person being tested never leaves the car, an idea that originated in South Korea. In South Korea, the test takes less than 10 minutes to complete, and there are safeguards to protect medical professionals administering the test. The results of the test, paid for by the government, are texted to the person, usually the next day. 

While telehealth has historically been targeted more toward young people, who are seen as more likely to have interest in telehealth and are tech savvy enough to navigate a digital platform, companies are now turning more focus on older people, recognizing just how valuable telehealth can be to them.

A national study of insurance claims found that telehealth jumped 53% from 2016 to 2017, according to the American Medical Association.

Also, in 2017, a patient survey found two-thirds of healthcare consumers said they would prefer seeing a doctor via virtual visits.

Combine that startling figure with the fact that many patients admitted to putting off healthcare for cost and convenience, and it becomes increasingly clear that telehealth has a demand and an important role in the industry.

Since 2017, the usage of telehealth has continued to surge yearly. How much more of an increase might we see now that coronavirus has forced telehealth into the national conversation on a daily basis?

The trend is pointing upward as insurance companies are increasingly covering telehealth, health professionals are continuing to find ways to integrate telehealth into preventative and treatment plans, and big companies are making bets on telehealth playing a major part in the future of healthcare. After COVID-19 passes, we think that’s probably a bet worth making.