How Telemedicine Is Making Health More Financially Viable was written for Playlouder by a contributing author. Please note that contributing opinions are that of the author. They are not always in strict alignment with our own opinions.
The usage of telemedicine surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly during lockdowns. During the pandemic, the ASPE tallies a growth in telehealth usage from less than 1% to as high as 80% in places where Covid numbers were vast.
There were 52.7 million telehealth visits in 2020 alone, compared to approximately 840,000 in 2019.
At the time, telemedicine was necessary to encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus. As the pandemic wanes, what has the practice revealed about our fragile healthcare system in the United States? More importantly, what is its financial implications?
Average costs of healthcare
During the health crisis, many opted for telemedicine due to logistical factors. However, logistics and social distancing aren’t the only variables. Before the pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 Americans were reported skipping potentially needed medical care. A trip to the doctor hinges on whether Americans can afford the check-up rather than its medical necessity or urgency.
22% say they've steered clear of doctor visits and annual exams or screenings because of the expense, and at least 29% fail to take medications as prescribed for the same reason.
This statistic is not a surprise considering that healthcare costs have risen dramatically in the U.S. over the past few decades. For example, U.S. healthcare spending during 2019 was $11,582 per person, and by 2028 these costs are expected to climb to $18,000 each.
Inaccessibility of health insurance
Investopedia claims that one reason for rising healthcare costs is government policy. In addition, they say providers have been able to increase prices due to the creation of programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which supposedly bridge the gap for people without health insurance.
However, these programs have long been plagued by the coverage gap. Here, essential workers, parents caring for children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and diverse minorities of low-income brackets are increasingly vulnerable to high healthcare costs as the standard of “poverty” for Medicaid fails to reach the Federal poverty level.
This essential design of Medicaid has largely remained unchanged throughout its 25-year history despite criticism from all quarters. Recent incremental expansions in Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2019 were essential in increasing accessibility. However, despite significant federal financial incentives, many states have still failed to adopt this act.
Either way, many in the coverage gap have incomes below the poverty line. Folks with that income level can't qualify for subsidized health insurance coverage in the ACA marketplaces and won't be eligible for Medicaid under their states’ rules.
History of telemedicine
While telemedicine reached the heights of popularity during the pandemic, the concept of delivering medical care via information technologies dates back more than a century.
For example, the telegraph allowed the Union Army to order medical supplies and communicate injuries on the battlefield during the civil war, playing a critical role in minimizing casualties.
With the invention of the telephone in 1876, the potential for live but remote care grew as a physician determined whether a baby had croup by listening to the baby cough through a phone receiver. It allowed the patient to receive care despite the physician and parents being unable to travel to each other.
During the 20th century, telehealth began utilizing two-way radio communications to accommodate heart sound transmissions. Then, in 1959, two-way video communication became a reality for telemedicine.
With this advancement, clinicians from the University of Nebraska would transmit neurological examinations across campus to medical students. Five years later would link with a state hospital to perform video consultations.
Telemedicine during the Covid-19 pandemic
The spring of 2020 represented the first time in U.S. history that such a large proportion of Americans had widespread access to telehealth services.
American telemedicine encounters increased by 766% in the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic as doctors struggled to keep up with the surge of patients.
Many Americans had filed for unemployment due to safety concerns or the lack of adequate remote-work support, leaving 9.2 million workers at risk of losing their employer-provided health insurance.
To help fill that gap, telemedicine companies offered check-ups and other services for free or at discounted rates. These rates would range from $15 to $89. In addition, CNBC identified nine telemedicine companies that offered free virtual doctor’s visits for patients affected by Covid-19.
Benefits of telemedicine
By 2020, the median number of hospitalized patients per physician was 13 to 18. This increase left healthcare providers severely burned out, causing many to resign from their posts, further exacerbating the workload.
Logistics doesn’t limit technology. Hence, by providing asynchronous information for review at the clinician’s convenience and setting appointments through a convenient online portal, telehealth platform Wheel empowers healthcare providers to offer the same quality care from the safety of their homes. Which means clinicians can provide healthcare consultations, diagnostics, and prescription medications.
Healthcare providers no longer need to waste time and energy in traffic driving to work and paying for exorbitant parking fees and car fuel while working long hours on the clock with no opportunity for rest. Telehealth allows them to meet more patients daily while minimizing burnout.
Likewise, telemedicine can remove obstacles from the patient journey, such as time, resources, or physical ability to attend appointments in person. That makes it easier to follow up with treatment — especially considering that telemedicine consultations are often cheaper than in-person visits due to the decrease in miscellaneous expenses.
Because of telemedicine’s accessibility and convenience, many can also start financially investing in their Long-Term Health. As we've previously discussed, this means better maintenance of diet plans or more efficiently managing chronic diseases under the consistent care of a medical professional.
With telemedicine, treatment and prevention have been more accessible to patients.
The advancements in telehealth have sparked more discussion about expanding Medicaid coverage to include telemedicine, a critical shift to replace in-person doctor visits with video, reducing total healthcare costs.
As we move deeper into the digital age, the boundaries hindering telemedicine’s integration into healthcare lessen too. In 2015, more than half of Americans living in rural areas didn’t have the broadband internet required to use telemedicine.
However, Medical Economics explains that the pandemic has streamlined the digital curve, and more patients are demonstrating increased comfort levels with technology.
In recent history, many online resources eclipsed word-of-mouth referrals, with online appointment booking surpassing the traditional phone call and communication preferences generally shifting toward digital methods.
There is thus reasonable evidence for many industry leaders to believe that the practice of telemedicine isn’t just a pandemic fad but will continue to revolutionize the healthcare industry.
Over time, discourse on the growing technology may further close the coverage gap, diversity gap, income gap, and digital gap for a more inclusive healthcare system.