Telehealth fosters communication between physicians and patients, connects healthcare professionals, and keeps patients abreast of their critical health data. It’s also highly convenient. But while the ways in which telehealth technology can be used are vast and varied, the ultimate goal is always the same: to increase access to high-quality healthcare services.
Due to the social distancing requirements stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, video conferencing has become increasingly common. By utilizing video-based platforms, patients can connect with mental health therapists, nurse practitioners, and physicians with just a few clicks, allowing them to receive care and address their questions and concerns safely and effectively.
While the advantages of video conferencing in healthcare are myriad, telehealth technology extends beyond video platforms. Mood tracking mobile applications, digital stethoscopes, at-home blood pressure wrist cuffs, and health-related smartphone notifications all help healthcare professionals in a variety of healthcare settings assess patients’ symptoms from afar.
An Industry on the Rise
There’s no question about it: the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rise of telehealth, turning it into the new norm for millions of Americans. But while the pandemic has certainly served as a catalyst for its growth, the telehealth industry started gaining momentum well before the pandemic surfaced. In fact, by 2015, nearly three-fourths of U.S. patients had expressed interest in telehealth checkups with their physicians. Additional research further supports these findings, suggesting that 90% of healthcare executives were developing frameworks for telehealth programs as early as 2014.
Most of this pre-pandemic interest in telehealth stemmed from the acute and ambulatory care industries. While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of telehealth technology within these industries, it has also encouraged other areas of healthcare to jump on board with remote care. Most notably, 2020 has signaled a major growth in the adoption of telehealth services among a vast array of behavioral health professionals, including intellectual and developmental disability service providers, substance use counselors, and psychiatrists.
Now that COVID-19 has thrust telehealth into the mainstream, many believe that it’s here to stay. To ensure telehealth services continue to meet — and, better yet, exceed — expectations, healthcare providers and analysts are beginning to examine both the benefits as well as the potential disadvantages of telehealth. By addressing the pros and cons of telehealth, patients and practitioners alike will be better equipped to answer the question: is telehealth worth it?
What Are the Benefits of Telemedicine That Support Quality Initiatives?
Every healthcare institution strives to level-up its quality of care to drive patient satisfaction scores and improve outcomes. As a growing number of healthcare providers turn to telehealth as a result of the pandemic, many are enthused about the role telehealth can play in supporting their institution’s quality initiatives. While the range of telehealth benefits is broad, here’s a look at several of the most prominent benefits that are driving the telehealth industry forward:
Finding time to go to the doctors’ office can be extremely difficult for many Americans, especially those whose only option is to take unpaid time off work. More often than not, transportation to and from a clinic and lengthy waiting room delays consume more time than the visit itself, making the entire process especially taxing and challenging to plan. The inconvenience of in-person visits often leads to last-minute cancellations and, ultimately, patients making fewer doctors’ appointments.
With telehealth, a patient need only find enough time to interface with their healthcare provider — no need to plan for excessive travel or waiting room delays. This predictability allows patients to take less time away from work while still receiving the high-quality care they need to maintain their health.
While the costs associated with telehealth vary among medical specialties, they tend to be significantly lower than those incurred for in-person visits. Scheduling inefficiencies, staffing challenges, and other common clinical hurdles are more easily avoided with telehealth, leading to substantial cost savings. Generally speaking, lower costs for providers mean lower costs for patients, particularly for initial consultations. Telehealth also helps patients eliminate the costs associated with transportation to treatment facilities like gas, parking, bus fare, etc.
• Access to Care
More than 46 million Americans live in rural areas that necessitate long travel times to the nearest clinic, and they aren’t alone. Millions of urban residents also experience geographic barriers to healthcare due to lengthy public transportation times, extensive traffic, or an inability to afford local private practices, thus pushing them to commute to remote public health clinics. Telehealth has the potential to serve Americans with limited access to care by eliminating long travel times and connecting patients with the services they need, from addiction support to urgent care treatment and beyond.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Telehealth?
While there are certainly many pros to telehealth — it’s convenient, cost-effective, and accessible — there are also a few cons. Technology is a powerful tool, but a video conference or mobile application cannot perfectly replicate an in-person visit. Many patients and healthcare providers are left wondering: are digital stethoscopes accurate? Is digital communication private? Will a physical examination be as effective if a doctor is unable to see small yet critical physical details up close?
To address the full scope of telehealth technology pros and cons, let’s explore some of the most commonly-cited disadvantages of video conferencing in healthcare:
• Tech Issues
Technology can be unreliable, causing critics of telehealth to question whether telehealth is as efficient as its advocates claim. Patients and healthcare professionals alike may experience difficulties using new technology. This concern is especially salient for patients with unreliable internet connections or faulty devices. But while technology issues can be frustrating, they are also largely avoidable. To keep disruptions to a minimum, medical professionals practicing telehealth are typically equipped with broadband internet and robust tech support.
• Privacy Assurance
Concerns about digital privacy have increased significantly in recent years, and for good reason. In an era marked by data breaches and information leaks, transmitting confidential medical information over the internet can seem exceedingly risky. Fortunately, telehealth platforms that adhere to regulations like HIPAA and include strict cybersecurity protocols have emerged. These precautions ensure telehealth platforms are no more susceptible to privacy issues than in-person visits are.
• Insurance Coverage
Both private and public insurance providers are often reluctant to establish reimbursement policies that equate telehealth to in-person care. This has led to a complicated web of reimbursement policies for telehealth that can make telehealth more expensive than in-person treatment.
However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance rules for telehealth have become increasingly patient-friendly. More than half of all U.S. states have passed telehealth parity laws requiring insurance providers to reimburse telehealth services the same way they would reimburse in-person treatment. Furthermore, both Medicaid and Medicare have expanded telehealth coverage since the onset of the pandemic. Medicaid has added new stipulations to ensure patients can maintain access to behavioral and urgent care telehealth services, while Medicare has vastly expanded telehealth coverage with its 1135 waiver, which covers e-visits and virtual check-ins.
• Patient-Practitioner Connection
Many healthcare providers rely on a strong foundation of trust and collaboration to be effective. When discussing the pros and cons of telehealth, nurse practitioners, behavioral healthcare providers, and other healthcare professionals may believe that their specialty requires a personal touch that is challenging to achieve through a computer or phone.
These concerns are difficult to quantify, and studies report conflicting sentiments among patients. While 71% of patients say they would choose a physician who offered telemedicine over one who didn’t, 33% cite the lack of a physical exam as a major drawback and 26% believe the lack of in-person interaction is cause for concern. As telehealth continues to evolve in 2020 and beyond, new studies are expected to reveal the true effectiveness of the patient-practitioner digital connection.
Why Is Telemedicine Important?
Over the course of the last two decades, the numerous advantages of telehealth have piqued the interest of public and private healthcare organizations alike. Proponents of telehealth believe that it could be a highly effective way to improve access to healthcare and, in many ways, COVID-19 is proving that.
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made telehealth common practice, additional telehealth benefits are emerging. Telehealth helps eliminate transportation costs, increase scheduling flexibility, maintain patient privacy, and encourage patient attendance. It also improves access to healthcare for those living in rural environments as well as those with compromised immune systems. But most immediately, telehealth has played a pivotal role in keeping Americans safe by facilitating social distancing measures during the pandemic.
The Path Forward for Telehealth
While the future of telehealth is certainly promising, existing concerns must be addressed. Insurance guidelines are quickly becoming less complicated, but confusion surrounding which services are covered — and to what extent — remains. It also remains to be seen whether digital communication platforms will foster the strong patient-practitioner connections often required of behavioral therapy and other healthcare services.
But while these concerns are valid, they need not impede telehealth’s ability to improve access to healthcare. In fact, some advocates estimate that more than 70% of all urgent health conditions can be addressed through telehealth. As the medical world continues its journey toward the delivery of top-tier telehealth services, the benefits of existing telehealth approaches suggest that telehealth will persist long after the pandemic is over.