On the surface, there are very good reasons to predict that telehealth volume is likely to sink like a stone. My colleague John Lynn, describes the COVID-19 telehealth surge as a false market, given that it was driven by conditions that are almost guaranteed to change.
John estimates that despite telehealth adoption rates of 50% to 60% at the height of the pandemic surge, the real telehealth market is closer to 10% to 15% of office visits. Arguably, even that is a fairly high number given that payers are still a bit squirrelly when it comes to paying reasonable rates for telehealth services.
But maybe not. In fact, as a patient, I’m here to say “not so fast, Jack.” In my experience, at least, telehealth has become not just a substitute for the supposedly preferable face to face visit, but a channel all of its own which offers some benefits I dearly love. Given these benefits, I’d argue that patient demand for telehealth won’t fall as far as some pundits think.
For one thing, like many other patients, I’m delighted that I don’t have to go to an office, find parking, wait for a visit with my provider, have that visit, pay via cumbersome processes more appropriate to the 90s, go back to my car and drive home to get care. All I have to do is click a button displayed on my desktop, tablet or cellphone screen and smile.
Meanwhile, I don’t have to go through the absurd ritual of being seen first by a medical assistant, then a nurse and finally the physician. Instead, in my case, my well-prepared Kaiser PCP pops onto the screen, collects critical details on my health status and if appropriate shoots a prescription over to the pharmacy electronically.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. My experience tells me that telehealth use is evolving in ways that are establishing it not only as an adjunct care channel, but also a unique and complementary service that achieves goals which wouldn’t be easy to meet otherwise.
One area in which I think telehealth offers new and emerging benefits is the way in which it can improve communications between patients, staffers and clinicians. In recent times, I’ve received care for a chronic condition in which my physician, nurse, and social worker shared information fluently with me in real-time in a manner that made me feel that the broader spectrum of my needs had been met.
This form of virtual clinical communication – which offers benefits not available via traditional face-to-face consults—can be embedded within traditional healthcare workflows in ways that foster collaboration far more effectively than point-to-point meetings.
Then, there’s the extent to which video visits offer mobile access. Many has been the time when rather than being stuck in front of a desktop, I’ve rambled out on a country drive or visited a friend via my cellphone. Having this kind of flexibility makes it easier for me to plan my care without imposing needless limits on my day.
These are just a few ways in which telehealth has won my heart and improved my access to rich care environments. As these continue to improve, I predict that demand will go back to increasing, and at a much faster clip than we’ve seen before. And while the pandemic may have kicked all of this off, telehealth expansion is likely to increase at a rate all of its own.