The Pulse

Virtual Healthcare In The US In The COVID Era

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Necessity is the mother of invention! This statement fits extremely well when talking about virtual healthcare. Remote healthcare and virtual consultations were not born out of thin air. These systems of contactless healthcare came into existence to serve the needs of remote communities, and to provide medical assistance to those who were unable to visit their doctor in person.

COVID – 19 pandemic resulted in immense pressure and unparalleled strain on the healthcare delivery system in the United States. From March 2020 till now, seismic shifts have been noticed in healthcare delivery.

How the Pandemic worked as a catalyst for virtual healthcare

Over the years with the advancement of technology, systems were developed to provide better healthcare delivery, superior doctor-patient appointments, and clearer communication. The best part is that virtual healthcare is not something that’s restricted to a privileged few, but is accessible to all.

The COVID – 19 pandemic posed a great challenge to not only the people who wanted to visit their doctors but also for medical practitioners.

As the pandemic spread and created havoc in people’s lives getting doctors’ appointments got more difficult. Medical practitioners were overbooked and over-worked with long queues at the medical centers. For patients who had minor medical issues, seeking medical advice and help got extremely difficult.

 The alterative that people of the United States and most countries in the world found most convenient was different forms of virtual healthcare.

Is virtual healthcare a recent development?

The possibilities virtual healthcare offers are nothing new to the people of the United States.

It’s only when the pandemic restricted movements and access to physical services became extremely difficult, that more people realized the benefits of virtual services. Virtual healthcare allowed patients and doctors to connect over the telephone and video conferencing to seek treatment for minor ailments like cold, allergies, aches and pains.

Now, a large section of the population is opting for virtual healthcare because of the various benefits the system has to offer.

 Looking at the current scenario, a large number of professional care providers and recipients in the US have already shifted towards virtual healthcare.

In a report, Parks Associates, the medical research firm, said 60% of households in the United States with internet access expressed interest in remote care through an online process or via the telephone.

Reasons for the sudden growth in telehealth in the US

The global telehealth market has grown in leaps and bounds in recent times. The sector  is forecasted to grow more than double from $25.4 billionin 2020to $55.6 billion in five years with a compound annual growth rate of16.9%. The global growth of  this sector is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 37.7% from an estimated USD 38.7 billion in 2020 to USD 191.7 billion by 2025. 

This humongous growth is mainly driven by some factors like:

  • Increasing number of chronic diseases and conditions along with the COVID – 19
  • The growing population’s requirement of even access to healthcare
  •  Severe shortage of medical professionals
  • Growth of the telecommunication industry
  • Government support
  • Increasing awareness among patients

Legal and Privacy Concerns Held-back Access to Virtual healthcare

Earlier, telehealth and telemedicine were found to be used mostly during natural disasters. Other than that, the number of telehealth users progressed rather slowly in the US from 2005-2017. During this period, virtual health facilities were mostly used by young patients in urban areas.

A major shift was noticed when the government discouraged hospital-based health care to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. The migration to a non-hospital, technology-based system was still slow due to the concerns of legalities and privacy.

To help alleviate concerns of privacy violations and to make it a popular way of seeking medical help, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services took steps. In a statement on March 17, 2020, waivered likely penalties against healthcare providers for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations.

Although virtual healthcare is gaining momentum, people still have many questions and doubts about what virtual healthcare is and how it works. Some of the trending FAQs are –

What’s the difference between virtual healthcare and telehealth?

 Virtual healthcare, often known as ‘telehealth’, refers to healthcare services provided to patients remotely. While they are used interchangeably, telehealth is a sub-unit under the umbrella of virtual healthcare. It refers solely to a provider advising to a patient through the means of a telephone or video conferencing devices, encompassing any manner in which doctors might have a one-to-one discussion with patients.

The ability to facilitate real-time communication between patients and providers is what makes virtual healthcare suited to being a perfect option, especially in places with short-staffed clinics.

It improves the availability of quality healthcare services for everyone by using easily accessible technology. This helps cut down on costs, improves patient engagement, shows better daily outcomes, and overall makes good healthcare services easier to reach using virtual health projects.

According to a peer-reviewed study by a large health system, pediatric telemedicine, in which people could access pediatricians directly, reduced numbers in the emergency and urgent care departments.

What’s the difference between telehealth, telemedicine, and virtual care?

 Telehealth is a blanket term used to talk about any or all digital healthcare services provided to the remotest of places. Telemedicine falls under this, comprising of medical services and treatments provided by doctors on an evidence-based system. Virtual care refers to any healthcare services on a digital platform, from providers to their patients, ranging from video or online assessments to even automated medication reminders.

Overall, telehealth can be summed up as a service bringing providers and patients together by bridging physical distance using digital means. Various categories that fall under this broad terminology are e-health, telemedicine, telecare, etc.

What are the benefits of virtual healthcare?

Since its conception, virtual healthcare has always had many benefits for patients and the healthcare systems alike.

  • Ease of access is one of the biggest benefits of having a well-established virtual healthcare system. It is one of the only ways of getting quality healthcare services to people in remote and rural areas. Hospitals in such places tend to be understaffed, making telehealth a lifeline for many. Virtual healthcare is a lifesaver in such underserved areas, where there may be a lack of qualified professionals physically nearby. The American Telemedicine Association said that it is possible to open care channels using virtual healthcare technology too.
  • Superior quality of healthcare is given by providers. The American Medical Association said that virtual healthcare could to provide a higher quality of care to patients. This could be because of its ability to improve the delivery of healthcare services and the treatment of acute diseases.  It also said that doctor-patient relations had become better because of easier access and ready availability of services.
  • Due to its convenience, telemedicine helps detect conditions early. Since healthcare becomes easily accessible 24/7, diseases can be detected before they worsen, and preventative actions can be taken accordingly. Early detection and actions can deter the worsening of disease and is crucial to terminate the growth of any illness before it reaches a severe stage.
  • Along with saving patients and clinicians’ time, telehealth also saves money. It cuts down on the money spent on travel, parking, and taking a day off work. These costs are especially highlighted for patients in rural areas, who may have to travel overnight to make their appointments with specialists in urban areas. Patients saved $6.4 million in travel costs due to Oregon Health and Science University’s telemedicine program. Another UPMC survey stated that 40% of their patients would have skipped treatment because of the excessive travel distance had they not got access to a virtual visit.
  • Overall virtual healthcare has been shown to save both, the provider and the patient’s money in many studies. It helps the doctors by relieving some of their administrative responsibility. Since clinicians operate independent of the patients’ location, the costs of running their practice are lowered.
  • Apart from the aforementioned costs, telehealth visits themselves are also much lighter on the consumer’s pocket. They are comparatively inexpensive to implement, with the average emergency room visit costing $1,734, and the average traditional on-site doctor’s visit coming in at $146. In comparison, an average telehealth visit costs just $79.
  • Virtual healthcare is highly convenient, allowing patients to get medical care right from the comfort of their home, without traveling. AARP said that patients waste much more time than they think on doctor’s visits, factoring in traffic or waiting times.   
  • Virtual healthcare also helps monitor patients’ health conditions and metrics for diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Increasing chronic health conditions’ cases have made such remote monitoring technology extremely useful. They can improve services while simultaneously cutting costs.
  • Telehealth is also effective in giving immediate attention to urgent symptoms. Due to a doctor being available 24/7, it becomes much easier to access medical help. Follow-ups might be required but virtual healthcare helps get a head-start on the initial treatment. 
  • Telehealth significantly reduces no-shows. Becker’s had released a case study on a Children’s Hospital in Nebraska that struggled with no-shows. It was becoming a center of revenue loss and the quality of services provided was being compromised. However, once they implemented telehealth, their no-show numbers reduced by 50%. 
  • It is also highly efficient, with estimates saying each visit averages about 5 minutes per visit per doctor.
  • Patient satisfaction is also always at the forefront with telehealth. A survey of patient’s satisfaction with telehealth showed that 94% – 99% of the patients were satisfied with their visits. 

What kinds of problems can a doctor address online?

Telehealth addresses diseases that are mainly easy to diagnose, such as colds or allergies. Clinicians mostly prescribe from a list of common medicines, the prescription from who is sent to a pharmacy close by the patient’s house.

These visits are also used for mental health issues such as depression.

However, the level of care and medicines prescribed vary from case to case. Some states might require patients to have an already established connection with their physician, such as a physical exam before a telemedicine visit.

How willing are people to use different virtual health tools in the US?

Several companies run surveys to see how willing users are to try out telehealth tools.

Sykes, an American IT company dealing in customer experience surveyed 2,000 adults in the United States to review their observations about and experiences with telehealth technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to their findings, 12% of the people have already used at least one COVID-19 related telehealth service.

73% of the people who took the survey said in case of any COVID-19 symptoms they would consider opting for a telehealth service.

A Telehealth Index 2019 consumer survey showed 66% of patients were willing to use a virtual care option, and 8% had already used one. 61% of the patients willing to use virtual healthcare said they’d use it for faster service and convenience. 54% of the people said they would use it for saving money.

 Is faster healthcare the only benefit of telehealth?

The rapid spread of COVID -19 reminded the world of how important it is to safeguard people from infectious diseases. Telehealth gave a solution to protect both providers and patients from getting infected while continuously providing standard healthcare services.

Telemedicine, which comes under the umbrella of telehealth helps physicians discuss and exchange medication, treatment plans, discharge summaries, etc. It helps in better collaboration, treatment and management of patients.

Through telehealth, hospitals can manage their capacity more efficiently, offering beds and exam rooms for patients who need it the most.

Does it take long to see a doctor with telehealth?

Based on the rising demand in the US, a rising number of telehealth tools are being developed. People can access them through a phone app or by navigating a search engine.

Telephonic conversations or videoconferencing with a physician are the options available. All a patient needs to have is a good internet connection, a computer, or a phone with a camera. Most telehealth software is created in a user-friendly manner and is simple to navigate.

As per the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Study, most telehealth users say the entire experience takes an average of 44 minutes. Thanks to advanced technology, virtual healthcare has been a game- changer in the healthcare industry. In the past, users have been slower in accepting and using virtual healthcare services but the tides have changed. Virtual healthcare in the COVID era has become a critical channel for delivering medical care. 

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