The pandemic didn’t just change the way we live and work, it’s also changed the healthcare landscape. This is especially true for telehealth, which has become an integral part of the patient care model in many urban and rural facilities. Here are six telehealth trends to watch in 2022.
1. Patients will continue to embrace virtual care
During the pandemic, the number of patients turning to virtual care exploded. And even though telehealth usage dropped after the initial surge in 2020, 36% of patients still accessed telehealth services in 2021 — a nearly 420% increase over 2019. And it’s not just millennials who are turning to virtual care. Telehealth is being used by all generations, and most say they plan to use telehealth again in 2022. In addition, telehealth has shown to be more popular among women, with 60% of telehealth patients being from that demographic.
Some of the biggest reasons patients are embracing telehealth include convenience, quick access to care, and protection from being exposed to other illnesses. These types of benefits are hard to ignore, leading many experts to predict that patients will continue to turn to virtual care options well into the future.
2. Insurers will incorporate virtual care into their patient care plans
Insurers are also seeing the benefits of telehealth. Even some of the more prominent health insurance companies, like Aetna and United Healthcare, have introduced virtual primary care plans, giving patients a convenient and affordable way to access preventative and primary healthcare. The success of telehealth is expected to continue to push insurers and providers away from the once popular fee-for-service model and more toward a value-based care model.
“In some circumstances, insurers might make it easier for patients to utilize a telehealth option for nonemergency services. It’s a way to leverage the efficiencies of telehealth as a sort of concierge service for beneficiaries so they know exactly the next step they need to take in their healthcare journey,” says Kyle Zebley, Vice President, Public Policy for the American Telemedicine Association, and Executive Director, ATA Action.
3. Telehealth will expand into new specialties
In the wake of the pandemic, more specialties are successfully expanding their practice to include telehealth offerings. Specialties like primary care, dermatology, behavioral health, oncology, and dentistry are a just a few that have benefited from it, and a lot more are using it as part of their follow-up care.
“There are very few fields of healthcare in which telehealth can’t play a role — with a clear understanding that, at some point in the lifelong cycle of care, providers are going to have to lay hands on patients,” Zebley shares. “My father-in-law is a neurosurgeon, and he delivered telehealth services mostly through consultations during the pandemic. A lot of his partners in his practice are still delivering telehealth services, again, mostly through consultations and follow-up care via telehealth.”
4. Providers may actually have more time with patients
Not too long ago, telehealth was viewed as an impersonal approach to patient care. Now, providers are recognizing its benefits and seeing it as way to spend more quality time with their patients.
“One of the things telehealth has provided is a different type of accessibility to patients,” shares Dr. Khizer Khaderi, Director and Founder of the Stanford Human Perception Laboratory and Vision Performance Center at Stanford Health Care. “You can shift the hours that physicians are available, and it’s also a different type of lens of quality of care.”
“Now you’re actually having direct one on one. Before in clinic, you’d spend most of the time doing charting as you’re doing parts of the examination, so you didn’t have the quality of face-to-face interaction which I think telehealth provides,” Dr. Khaderi continues. “It’s become more personal, and you can ask questions that you typically wouldn’t do because you’re too busy just trying to see the patient so you can go on to the next patient. I think in a lot of ways it’s kind of shifted it back to how it used to be — with doctors doing house calls where you got to spend more time with a patient.”
5. Delivery will continue to be a challenge in some areas
Launching telehealth services hasn’t been easy for many rural and urban facilities.
“It didn’t matter if you were in Silicon Valley or rural, you started seeing the gaps in the workflow because we had to shift at times from Zoom, Doximity, or some other video-call platform,” says Dr. Khaderi. “Then from an operational workflow perspective, it’s patient scheduling and communications. It was almost like everyone collectively was doing the whole startup of building the plane and flying it at the same time.”
Other challenges included HIPAA and government regulations. Fortunately, facilities received 1135 waivers to allow them to implement technology that was previously unavailable due to regulatory restrictions.
“We’re still operating under those public health emergency waivers, and so once the public health emergency ends, many of these flexibilities will go away,” shares Brock Slabach, Chief Operating Officer for the National Rural Health Association. “We’re working with Congress to try to perpetuate these programmatic changes post pandemic.”
But one of the biggest challenges that rural facilities face is the lack of broadband access, which is necessary to effectively utilize telehealth. Zebley believes the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last November may help solve this problem for some communities.
“Included in that bill is $65 million set aside for broadband investing that’s going to be targeted toward underserved communities — mostly rural — which would give them better access to all the various forms of virtual care,” he says.
6. Telehealth will play a crucial role in addressing provider shortages
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortages in both primary and specialty care. With the number of Americans needing healthcare continuing to grow as generational groups get older, many see telehealth as the solution to getting these patients care with a limited healthcare workforce.
“There’s no other option but to pursue virtual healthcare,” says Zebley. “Healthcare organizations as commercial payors of healthcare systems cannot afford to be left behind. If you think about the macro issues the U.S. healthcare system has, none of the solutions would really be achieved without telehealth being part of the solution. The healthcare worker shortage was already an issue before the pandemic, and it’s been greatly exacerbated by the Great Resignation. Frontline workers are just plumb worn out, and some are looking at other career options. So, how can you deal with that issue understanding the tremendous lag time? You’re talking about 10-15 years for the average physician to work their way through the education system. Without the efficiencies that telehealth can offer, how can you get in front of more patients?”
What these telehealth trends have shown is that telehealth is here to stay and wanted by both patients and providers. For healthcare organizations to continue to be competitive, they’ll need to find new ways to integrate it into their patient care delivery model.
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