Telemedicine – using technology to deliver medical care at a distance – is growing rapidly. Virtual care visits are expected to top 1 billion in 2020, according to Forrester Research.
While telemedicine has been an emerging technology over the past 30 years, its use surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, researchers predict there will be 900 million telemedicine appointments related to COVID-19 and 200 million for general care, as well as 80 million visits for mental health.
Telehealth, which refers to the electronic and telecommunications technologies used to provide distance care, can include two-way video, smart phones, email, and other wireless tools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says telehealth may be increasingly implemented and become a recognized standard of care. It could reduce costs, improve overall patient health outcomes, and improve access to care, especially for those in underserved communities.
Telemedicine reduces strain on in-person visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, and it’s convenient for patients. Telemedicine appointments will not, however, replace in-person visits for things like annual exams and serious health concerns.
But they can fill gaps in access to care and help patients manage chronic conditions, including stroke, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Patients can wear intervention devices, like smartwatches and fitness trackers, to help doctors track their condition, including heart rate.
In numerous studies, researchers noted that telemedicine improved health outcomes, fewer episodes of health worsening, and reduced hospital admissions.
Barriers to telehealth and telemedicine continue to be patient privacy, security, licensing and liability concerns, and insurance reimbursement. During the pandemic, insurance restrictions were lifted, including waived Medicare payment requirements and telehealth services being charged at the same rate of in-office visits. But that may not last long term.
Different states and different insurers often charge varying rates for telemedicine. Health experts say insurance coverage for the virtual tools and visits need to be more uniform across the industry.
Virtual medical visits are expected to stay in demand beyond the novel coronavirus. Patients seem to be embracing telemedicine appointments and telehealth tools for their convenience.
More providers are poised to incorporate telemedicine and telehealth into their business models, making these virtual visits more mainstream than ever.