Will Telemedicine Be the New Normal?

The coronavirus pandemic boosted virtual medical visits. When it winds down, will telemedicine be the new normal?

“The existential shock of the pandemic poured fuel on to what was a little flame and removed some of the barriers and changed people’s way of looking at how they get care,” said Douglas Smith, managing director at Wavestone, an IT consulting firm headquartered in Philadelphia.

Patients, physicians and other clinicians have gotten more comfortable with telemedicine, which can be a time saver for all involved.

Those patients will drive additional growth of telemedicine, said Mia Finkelston, MD, an urgent care telemedicine physician and medical director of Amwell, based in Boston. Amwell offers group practices a platform to provide telemedicine visits under their own brand, as well as opportunities for patients to connect directly with providers.

“The general public is going to want this, and they know it is possible,” Finkelston said. “Demand is going to drive providers to have this offering for their patients.”

David Endicott, a managing director at Wavestone, agreed, saying, “We have reached the point of no return.” Consumers are already used to banking, shopping and doing other things on their electronic devices. Now, they have become familiar with receiving medical care remotely as well.

“There will be consumer pressure,” Endicott said.

Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said she thinks “telehealth should become the new normal,” explaining it can increase access for people who find it difficult to go to the practitioner’s office.

However, Kaslow cautioned that not everything is suitable for telemedicine. “We need to really figure out who it works for, under what conditions and do a much more individualized approach,” she said.

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COVID-19: The impetus for change 

When public officials issued stay-at-home orders, people started working from home and people feared exposure to the novel coronavirus. Interest in telemedicine increased.

“COVID was a push that moved telemedicine forward, and because COVID still will be around, clinicians and patients will become increasingly comfortable with the new normal,” Endicott said. “I don’t know that we will go back.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services gave telemedicine a huge boost, when it agreed to reimburse for electronic visits for Medicare beneficiaries in March of this year. Many commercial insurers followed.

Kaslow said she hopes the CMS continues that policy. So do 30 U.S. Senators, who wrote a letter to leadership, recommending permanent changes to expand telehealth.

Joe Kvedar, MD, vice president of Connected Health Partners HealthCare, a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston and president of the American Telemedicine Association, testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, urging the lawmakers to take action now to make access to telehealth services permanent.

“It would be difficult at this point to put that genie back in the bottle,” Endicott said.

Telemedicine vs. telehealth 

When referring to televisits, a physician or other provider conducting an online visit and providing care to a patient, that’s telemedicine vs. telehealth, which is a broader term. Telehealth may include other remote nonclinical services, such as administrative meetings, medical education or remote monitoring.

For physicians planning to continue offering telemedicine services, Endicott suggests adopting tools that reflect the practice’s brand.

A hybrid system 

So, will telemedicine be the new normal? Perhaps, but it will not replace office practices.

“I think telemedicine is a component of a strategy that we have to have as we think about how healthcare is delivered efficiently and at a lower cost in the future,” Smith said.

Telemedicine can handle many types of visits, but not all medical care can be delivered remotely, including treatments such as a corticosteroid injection into an arthritic joint.

Finkelston agreed patients will still need to see physicians face-to-face. A first visit might be online, followed by an in-person visit to complete a physical, with follow-up via telemedicine to manage chronic conditions.

Telemedicine visits also give providers insight into what a patient’s life is like. They might note whether the house is well kept, if there are visible fall risks such as throw rugs, etc. Given all the benefits of telemedicine, Finkelston believes it will remain part of physicians’ practices.

“People are realizing medicine can be delivered in ways other than what they are currently doing,” she said. “It has a lot to offer for any provider.”

Related:
Telehealth: A Key Tool in the Fight Against COVID-19 
The Growing Acceptance of Telemedicine 

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