This proverb certainly rang true in 2020. Although, when it came to healthcare at least, it might be more apt to say that necessity was the mother of adoption.
Telehealth technology has been around for decades and has seen a slow but steady rise in use. But concerns around the lack of traditional, hands-on care, coupled with regulatory hurdles, funding issues and cybersecurity fears, have led to it being given a fairly wide berth by most organizations.
Then COVID-19 hit.
According the Center for Disease Control, the number of telehealth visits increased in the first quarter of 2020 by 50% when compared to the same time period in 2019. The last week of March 2020 showed a 154% increase over the same week in 2019.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in April 2020 that nearly half (43.5%) of Medicare primary visits were through telehealth, compared to less than one percent in February.
It’s easy to see why. As entire countries implemented shelter-in-place orders, providers naturally turned to telemedicine — especially for older, more at-risk patients.
Meanwhile, regulatory bodies realized that they needed to (at least temporarily) abolish the legal hurdles around telehealth if providers were going to keep up with the unprecedented demand for virtual visits.
In the U.S., the CARES Act included a section that helped providers ramp up their telehealth capabilities. It dictated that doctors would be paid the same amount for virtual visits as in-person ones and allocated $200 million in funding for providers to get the technology they needed.
In short, this pandemic forced providers to finally go virtual on a bigger scale.
And now, at the end of 2020, telehealth has gone from a novelty to an expectation for most patients in the United States. Of course, there are some patients who are still unconvinced, but the majority love its inherent convenience and safety.
In such an unpredictable time, it’s difficult to say how healthcare will look in 2021 and beyond. The consensus among experts is that while there may be some return to a “pre-COVID” way of life, telehealth technology will stick around.
For one thing, patient expectations have changed. They’ll still expect to visit in-person when necessary, but they’ll want the option to visit remotely when it’s not. Companies that don’t offer comprehensive telehealth solutions may find themselves losing patients to those that have embraced it.
Plus, the roadblocks that seemed so impassable before the pandemic are suddenly anything but. Concerns over quality of care, for instance, have largely been laid to rest. Healthcare workers have gotten used to connecting with patients through virtual means and are finding most patients more engaged than they were before.
Cyberthreats will always be a source of concern, but while healthcare data might be a particularly tempting target, it’s also defendable. With the right technology, infrastructure and employee training, cybersecurity concerns shouldn’t stand in the way of organizations embracing telemedicine.
As for regulatory hurdles, this is one of the more difficult predictions to make. Will governments return to their pre-pandemic way of regulating telehealth? It’s impossible to know for sure.
In March 2020, Dr. Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote that while remotely delivered health care “is not the solution to the current crisis, but it will be one of its lasting consequences.”
At the end of 2020, that still rings true.
The benefits of telehealth are too numerous and our pre-pandemic reasons for not adopting it at scale seem … well, outdated. So, while healthcare may return somewhat to the way things used to be, Dr. Topol is right: Remote care is here to stay.