May 14 2020

6 Reasons Telehealth Is Now More Important Than Ever

Virtual care has offered a lifeline during a global health crisis. The platform’s sudden growth could have permanent implications.

As COVID-19 spreads, healthcare providers are leveraging telehealth to protect patients and staff. Ninety-seven percent of healthcare leaders have expanded telehealth access since the pandemic, according to a survey from the Medical Group Management Association.

Virtual care has been crucial for screening and treating COVID-19 cases from afar, but it’s also facilitating routine visits that would be risky or complicated during quarantine. 

The temporary shifts have paved the way for telehealth expansion, says Tony Buda, president and CEO of Banyan Medical Systems, a virtual care technology company.

“It has led to what I believe will be the next generation of delivery systems in the U.S.,” Buda says. 

Here are some of the ways in which telehealth is now more important than ever:

1. It Protects Medical Personnel and Patients

The risk of infection and surging demands on the healthcare system have made telehealth a safe and necessary tool, says Karen Donelan, a senior scientist at the Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mongan Institute. 

“Primary care and specialist clinicians are doing as many visits as possible using telehealth as a replacement for office visits,” Donelan says. 

More than 60 percent of patients say the pandemic has increased their willingness to try telehealth, according to a survey by IT vendor Sykes.

Most early deployments used videoconferencing but many now integrate Internet of Medical Things devices to monitor patients’ vital signs from a distance, says Uri Bettesh, founder and CEO of Datos Health, a remote care and telemedicine platform. 

2. It Enables Radiologists to Read from Anywhere

There’s growing evidence that COVID-19 may forever change how radiologists work, as many are now using digital technologies to work from home. Such partnerships already were becoming more common in order to serve rural and international patients, Diagnostic Imaging reports

Still, the pandemic could be a wake-up call for urban hospitals and practices that may have been hesitant to allow radiologists to work remotely, according to a blog post by Dr. Barry Julius, a physician in nuclear medicine at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., recently quoted in Radiology Business

READ MORE: Learn about healthcare technologies aiding in the fight against COVID-19.

Julius predicts a “sea change” in the field, with more universal teleradiology adoption across practices and hospitals after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, adding that “the field of radiology will never be quite the same.” 

3. It Increases Healthcare Access in Senior Living Communities

Telemedicine can boost convenience, improve care and disease management, and reduce hospitalization rates for high-risk adults in senior housing communities, according to McKnight’s Senior Living

In mid-March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services temporarily expanded telehealth services to include all Medicare beneficiaries. Under the expansion, those living in homes and healthcare settings outside of rural areas can now use telehealth services for office visits, preventive health screenings and mental health services. 

“Any expansion of telehealth services is a very good thing,” Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for senior living provider Front Porch, told Senior Housing News. “Especially during this time when we need folks to stay home, and in particular, to safeguard people over 65 as well as other high-risk individuals.”

A proposed bipartisan bill, the Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalization Act, would permanently expand telemedicine to include more Medicare patients.

4. It Helps Conserve Supplies and Bed Space

Telehealth has reduced the demand for supplies and hospital beds by keeping low-risk patients at home, helping some medical systems from becoming overwhelmed.

It also can help within a care delivery setting. At Vanderbilt University Medical Center, clinicians may reach admitted patients via Zoom and Apple iPad devices “to limit exposure and not use up protective equipment just for a conversation,” Dr. Neal Patel, the organization’s CIO for health IT, noted in a roundtable Q&A with HealthTech

Top Uses for Telehealth

A recent poll of our @HealthTechMag Twitter audience demonstrates some top uses for telehealth.

More systems are set to benefit: In early April, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a $200 million telehealth program as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus response bill to help providers purchase telemedicine equipment and devices necessary to provide telehealth services — a move intended to free up valuable hospital space, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release

5. It Supports Specialties Such as Cardiology and Psychiatry

The pandemic has pushed specialists to expand telehealth for critical needs that include cardiovascular care. Known as telecardiology, this can include virtual home visits, smartphone-based rehab exercises and nurse-aided consultations at satellite clinics.

Dr. Andrew Freeman of National Jewish Health in Denver and a member of the American College of Cardiology’s healthcare innovation council, called it a “blessing in a very awful disguise” in an interview with TCTMD, an online news site produced by the Cardiovascular Research Foundation.

Stress and anxiety have prompted a dramatic increase in online counseling, meanwhile.

Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, which operates nearly 40 hospitals, is conducting more than 90 percent of its mental health visits virtually, Don Mordecai, a psychiatrist and the organization’s national leader for mental health and wellness, told STAT. Such adoption “would have taken years under normal circumstances,” he said.

READ MORE: Learn how telehealth supports mental health care in remote and underserved areas.

6. It Brings Care to Populations in Need

The pandemic has highlighted existing racial, economic and geographic disparities that can hinder access to medical treatment, according to The American Journal of Managed Care. A rapid shift to telehealth could improve access for marginalized groups faced with the double challenge of limited resources and poor connectivity.

The reason? The telehealth program under the coronavirus response bill will support providers responding to the pandemic by helping patients in need acquire telecommunications services and devices for receiving connected care at home. 

“It could really empower those communities to continue to have viable healthcare and clinics without having to go to a primary care center in another metro area,” says Buda of Banyan Medical Systems.

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