In 2019, only 11% of Americans were using telehealth. By May of 2020, that percentage jumped to 46%, in large part due to the pandemic. When comparing monthly medical claims reported year over year for the month of December alone, telehealth claims increased an estimated 2800%. Over the last year and for the foreseeable future, telehealth has moved front and center when it comes to health trends. While many providers are returning to in-person visits with patients for a number of services that were temporarily moved to virtual settings, telehealth has proven to be a viable method of helping consumers access and receive certain health support, and its widespread adoption suggests it is here to stay.
Here are three ways telehealth could impact the consumer experience, and the health market, post-pandemic:
1. Increasing primary care access and adoption
The U.S. is seeing a sharp decline in primary care visits—a trend that concerns health experts and has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 outbreak. The decline in the demand for primary care is partially driven by younger generations adopting different philosophies on how to manage their health and well-being. A recent poll found 45% of individuals, aged 18 to 29, said they did not have a primary care physician (PCP).
But while the adoption of PCPs is seeing a decline, the benefits of having one remain consistent. Building and maintaining a patient-doctor relationship can also have long-term benefits, particularly with chronic illness. In one study, patients who experienced a major health event like cardiovascular disease and who had a positive experience with their PCP had a 40 to 50% lower risk of mortality in the next decade compared to those who did not.
While COVID-19 may have exacerbated the drop in primary care, it has also created a rapid shift toward innovative, patient-centric solutions. Telehealth previously faced many barriers, but with a rapid rise in demand during quarantine, health systems and insurers took fast action. This shift may also result in a more patient-centric system, which no longer requires face-to-face visits in an office setting for many of the services related to preventive care that are typically accessed through a PCP.
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s innovative SimplyVirtual HMO plan is an affordable alternative for its plan members who value telehealth’s flexibility, while also preserving the relationship-centered experience of having a PCP to help guide health decisions.
SimplyVirtual plan members can engage with PCPs and a dedicated care team through video, voice and in-app messaging 24/7 via the Doctor On Demand digital platform on their smartphone or computer. Preventive health, chronic care management, urgent care and integrated behavioral health are all provided through a seamless, virtual experience for patients while access to office-based care and referrals for services that cannot be completed virtually are also available. Harvard Pilgrim’s SimplyVirtual is currently offered in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine with plans to expand availability later this year.
2. Helping to meet the increased demand for behavioral health care
The U.S. is currently facing a physician workforce shortage, a challenge that is only expected to increase in the years to come. As a result of the imbalance of supply and demand, options can be limited when it comes to finding the right doctor. The flexibility of telemedicine creates new opportunities for doctors to connect with and assist more patients they wouldn’t otherwise be able to accommodate with in-office visits.
In December of 2020, the second most utilized claims code for telehealth services in the U.S. was for psychotherapy services. Meanwhile, the top reported diagnosis at 47% was for mental health compared to only 23% of telehealth diagnoses in 2019. As the need for mental health support increases, telehealth provides an opportunity for busy health care professionals to meet growing demands. Various online therapy apps and text-based counseling tools like Talkspace and Sanvello, which connect consumers with accredited professionals, are also significant contributors to making behavioral health care more widely accessible by leveraging virtual platforms.
3. Restoring care opportunities for remote areas
The CDC reports that people who live in rural areas of the U.S. are at a higher risk of dying prematurely from one of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke. Additionally, prior to the pandemic, 80% of rural America was medically underserved and rural hospitals were closing at an increased rate.
A fortunate outcome of the pandemic was much-needed financial aid and grants to help with challenges in infrastructure and technology. Now, remote areas can better meet patient demands, renew their focus on telemedicine services and restore access to care for the long term. The CDC, in particular, is helping to support telehealth projects across the country that improve access to chronic disease prevention and management programs, as well as specialist care.
Early Detection of Disparities Among Users
The increasingly widespread adoption of telehealth brings many new opportunities and solutions. However, research among early users is already showing that certain groups are underrepresented, specifically older patients, non-English speaking patients, patients with a household median income under $50k and patients of Asian, Black and Latinx descent.
While part of the disparity is a result of access to technology, another contributing factor is a lack of diversity among health care providers. This deficit makes it harder for marginalized groups to make connections with their doctors. At Doctor On Demand specifically, they’re committed to building diverse teams. Currently, 69% of their PCPs are women, 43% of doctors are from various ethnic minorities, 21% are African-American and 20% identify with the LGBTQ community. As virtual medicine continues to grow, we’re reminded of the importance of designing and prioritizing access and resources for historically marginalized populations.
The growth and increased adoption of telehealth is the first step in the progression of a formerly traditional health care system. For 2021, we’re already seeing a significant increase in AI investments, tech startups partnering with payers, employers and vendors, and an increase in cybersecurity funding to support the growth of tech use and data sharing. While it’s unclear exactly how far the evolution will go and what changes and innovations will come with it, we can expect the momentum to continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.