2020 to 2021: Changes in Virtual Care and Telehealth
The past year has been a turning point for many industries, especially health care. The medical sector embraced new technologies and services at a record pace in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most recognizable and impactful of these changes was telehealth and virtual care.
While telemedicine predates COVID-19 by several decades, it saw unprecedented growth through 2020 and 2021. Here’s how the practice has advanced and improved in the past year.
1. More Support from Hospitals
Despite telehealth being far from novel, its adoption was lackluster before the pandemic. According to the CDC, just 43% of health centers could provide telemedicine services in 2019. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020, 95% of health centers actively used telehealth.
While hospitals may not continue using these services at mid-pandemic levels, they will still have the necessary technology. Almost all American health centers can now provide virtual care. Should a similar emergency arise in the future, the medical industry will be better equipped to handle it.
2. Growing Public Acceptance
The general public has also grown more accepting of telehealth in the past year. According to a Sykes survey in March 2020, as virtual care was rising in prominence, 65.6% of American consumers doubted telemedicine’s efficacy. By March 2021, 87.82% wanted to continue using these services after the pandemic subsides.
Such a significant majority of patients preferring telehealth suggests concerns over its efficacy have waned. This shift in public opinion likely comes from more consumers experiencing virtual care firsthand. As more people received it, their doubts did not reflect reality.
3. Rising Patient Adoption
Naturally, the growing public acceptance of telehealth coincided with rising adoption among patients. Telemedicine visits increased by 50% in Q1 2020 compared to 2019, and in late March 2020, they rose 154%.
Concerns over contracting COVID-19 grew and overshadowed any lingering doubts about telehealth. Patients quickly embraced these options as they became available, which could translate into the continued use of telemedicine in the future. Now that people are used to these types of visits, they may be more willing to use them again.
4. Broader Insurance Coverage
Adoption and use figures weren’t the only aspects of telehealth to advance in the past year. Virtual care also moved forward in that patients who receive these services now have broader health care coverage.
As of June 2021, 40 states require telemedicine coverage from insurers, compared to 35 before the pandemic. The extent of this coverage has also increased in many states. While only three required that insurers cover audio-only telehealth before COVID-19, 21 now do. Whether these changes will last is still uncertain, but it’s a promising trend.
5. Robotics Integration
The technological aspects of virtual care also have advanced over the past year. One of the most impressive technological innovations to come to telehealth is the introduction of robotics. During the pandemic, some hospitals started using internet-connected robots to check on and communicate with patients remotely.
As the adoption of these technologies rises, its capabilities will grow. Robotics-integrated virtual care will help hospital staff mitigate labor shortages, treat patients faster and reduce the spread of dangerous pathogens.
6. Relaxed Regulatory Considerations
Government regulations around telehealth have relaxed as it played an increasingly crucial role in health care at large. For example, many states waived licensure requirements for doctors treating patients in other states via telehealth. If this change becomes permanent, telehealth could provide people with access to the nation’s top doctors, regardless of where they are.
Similarly, changes to HIPAA regulations have enabled doctors to use any nonpublic-facing videoconferencing service, such as FaceTime. This change can make telemedicine more accessible to a broader patient base, provided these services offer adequate security.
Telehealth May Be the Future of Health Care
All these changes indicate that telemedicine is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Now that adoption among patients and hospitals has grown, technologies are advancing and regulations have adapted, there’s even more room to grow.
Telehealth is unlikely to replace traditional care, but is likely to become a permanent fixture in the health care industry. These services, having advanced as quickly as they have, could come to define modern medicine. Future health crises may not be as imposing with resources like these.