Telehealth Goes Mainstream – Are We Ready to Evaluate its Impact on Healthcare?
Telehealth is having its moment in the sun. After many years of false starts and slow adoption rates, the technology—which enables patients to interact virtually with healthcare providers via video and teleconferencing platforms—is seeing booming volumes. During the last two weeks of March, one of the country’s leading telehealth providers reported an 80% increase in overall case volume as patients with non-urgent medical issues sought alternatives to hospitals, urgent care centers, and doctors’ offices.
This massive surge in telehealth utilization has many healthcare professionals wondering if the pandemic will be a catalyst to a permanent change, whereby telehealth becomes a much more significant part of the U.S. healthcare ecosystem. And, if it does, what will that mean for the future of healthcare? Will patients be more or less likely to receive routine care if telehealth options are widely available? Will certain diagnoses or screenings fall through the cracks in a virtual check-up that would have been caught in person? Are different demographic or socioeconomic groups at an advantage or disadvantage? Will life sciences teams’ interaction with patients and providers suffer?
Tracking Telehealth Encounters
To answer any of these questions, providers, health plans, public health officials, and life sciences professionals are going to need to be able to track telehealth interactions in ways that were never before possible.
To put this in perspective, consider the state of telehealth utilization rates in the pre-COVID-19 environment. According to a 2019 study, just 10% of the U.S. population had ever used a telehealth service. Reasons for the low adoption rate include a general lack of awareness and widespread confusion about whether or not it is covered by insurance.
With such low adoption rates, telehealth implementation stalled. Providers never prioritized consistent coding of telehealth encounters, or streamlined integration of telehealth engagement into electronic health records (EHR), meaning that many of the telehealth encounters that were happening prior to COVID-19 were happening in a vacuum.
In fact, it was March 6, 2020, with a pandemic looming, before the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) agreed to pay for office, hospital, and other visits provided via telehealth across the country. And only recently, place of service (POS) codes that would specify the telehealth setting are beginning to be used consistently.
This may sound like a technicality, but it’s a huge deal when it comes to tracking telehealth encounters at scale. The standardization of patient data in the telehealth space has simply not kept pace with the recent growth of the technology, and that could create downstream problems if a larger portion of the patient population suddenly migrates to telehealth.
Real-Time Analytics Bring Telehealth Engagement Into Focus
Thankfully, recent advances in real-world patient data analytics have made it possible to rapidly identify and “tag” telehealth encounters without relying on traditional insurance claims databases to catch up with the new reality.
In fact, by applying this tagging functionality to our healthcare mapping technology, which tracks the complete healthcare experience of more than 320 million individuals nationwide, we’ve found that the number of healthcare providers now offering telehealth services to their patients is 5.7 times higher today than it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York, where COVID-19 hit hardest, the number of doctors now offering telehealth is nearly 9.7 times higher than it was pre-pandemic.
These are big numbers that are growing bigger by the day. More importantly, though, by tracking these telehealth encounters alongside other important patient-level details, such as specific diagnosis codes, data from individual EHRs, and socioeconomic variables, it is possible to capture the full patient journey–regardless of whether parts of the journey take place in the virtual or physical world.
This level of granularity will be critical for early identification of any gaps in care that could emerge as a result of more widespread telehealth utilization. Not to mention the importance this technology will have on identifying the providers leading the charge in the adoption of telehealth and potential implications for how these providers engage with the life sciences industry and other support systems, driving increased digital engagement throughout healthcare.
The ripple effects of COVID-19 are just starting to surface, but it’s clear that they will be far-reaching and impactful. Patient behavior is already changing and those changes will be important to track as we evaluate healthcare trends before, during, and after the pandemic.