The healthcare industry is in the midst of a colossal shift that is changing the way healthcare is delivered.  New connected health technologies are moving healthcare from a purely doctor’s office activity to wherever patients need or want to receive care.  That includes homes, offices, hotels, sports facilities, in addition to traditional settings.

Many factors are contributing to this evolution, including the need for greater efficiency and scalability to accommodate an increased demand for healthcare services and a shortage of physicians.  Consumer behavior, too, is influencing change.  Patients are using a broad range of technologies – devices, services, and applications – in their personal and professional lives that enable them to remain connected to work, family, and friends, wherever they are.

The healthcare system has an opportunity to leverage similar technologies to improve delivery of healthcare services and produce better outcomes.  They’ve gone digital in other facets of their lives, so it’s not surprising that most employees are interested in trying at least one digital health service, with the average U.S. employee willing to try more than five.  Healthcare apps, digital health records, wearable devices such as those used for remote patient monitoring, and telehealth are the most popular among U.S. employees.

But, despite the opportunity – 88% of employers offer connected health services through their employee health plans – usage isn’t nearly as widespread.  In 2018, only 9% of employees say they used telehealth services, a mere 1% increase from the previous year.  However, other sources show more substantial growth, including an AMA study that found that telehealth use grew by 53% from 2016-2017, and Mercer projects the industry to maturing from $6.3B in 2016 to $34B by the end of this year.  Still, the market has not grown as quickly as many expected, despite the potential benefits to providers and patients.  Reimbursement has been an ongoing obstacle, but slowly, that’s being addressed.

Suddenly, however, the country – the world, in fact – is facing a healthcare crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic.  The newest coronavirus has already infected more than 350,000 individuals globally and its rapid spread has prompted the cancellation of countless activities, sporting events, and conferences – including HIMSS 2020.  Schools across the country have opted to close for two weeks or longer – to help slow the virus’s spread.

The spread of this virus is inherently going to increase the demand for healthcare services, as patients seek consultation when exhibiting symptoms, testing to confirm cases, and treatment.  Healthcare facilities will need to be able to assess symptoms and identify patients who have may have contracted the disease, and clear patients who are suffering from other conditions, like the common cold.  The demand for consultations and advice is an ideal opportunity to promote telehealth services.  It can help manage the increase in demand, and remote consultations can allow patients and providers can take measures to limit the virus’ spread when patients need physical visits for testing.  After all, while symptoms can be assessed using telehealth technologies, actual testing still requires an in-person visit.

Several telehealth companies have reported an increase in usage since the outbreak began, as much as a 30% increase since December 2019.  Not surprisingly, a telehealth service in China has seen virtual visits increase by 900% since the outbreak started there.  Virtual visits allow patients to have initial evaluations through mobile apps, phone, calls, or video services, reducing physical encounters with physicians, staff, or other patients.  Likewise, connected health services can enable patients to seek consultation and manage their existing conditions during this outbreak without having to travel.

The government and key healthcare agencies are aware of the severity of this situation, and the role telehealth can play in reducing the virus’s spread while allowing providers to manage their existing patients – particularly chronic disease patients who need regular visits.  Several immediate measures have been taken to promote the use of telehealth beyond the initiatives already launched.

  • CDC recommends anyone who suspects being infected call their doctors, rather than immediately going to the clinic or emergency room, where the infection, if present, could spread. Telehealth visits can help doctors make initial diagnoses and provide appropriate instructions to patients who require testing as well, along with healthcare facilities, to help contain the disease.
  • The Federal Government’s Telehealth Services Act of 2020, part of an $8.3 billion bill in response to the COVID-19 virus, eliminated many of the existing restrictions on how and when providers may use telehealth technology. The hope is more providers will take advantage of the ability to use virtual care as they see increased demand for consultations.
  • CMS issued a statement stressing the urgency of and value of building patient awareness of and access to telehealth services and “benefits that can help keep them healthy while helping to contain the community spread of this disease.”

This new disease is testing the limits of an already strained healthcare system.  The use of connected health services, like telehealth, can be critical to ensuring the system is able to effectively manage the COVID-19 virus, along with other healthcare needs.  In the longer term, while unfortunate, COVID-19 can prove a catalyst for the growth of connect healthcare.  If patients have positive experiences and, more importantly, are able to receive healthcare services without being exposed to the virus, they may be more inclined to continue using them once this emergency is over.

To learn more about how telehealth and other connected health technologies can reduce the burden on  providers while delivering positive outcomes, visit us here.