May 13, 2020

Telehealth is having 'a moment' amid Covid-19. Will it last?

Daily Briefing

    You've likely been hearing a lot about telehealth recently. As the Covid-19 crisis has dramatically expanded patient and physician adoption of telehealth, as well as favorably changed the reimbursement landscape around it, rates of telehealth adoption are skyrocketing. Before 2020, rates of telehealth use among patients were slowly climbing, but still hovered in the low single-digits.

    Ready-to-use slides: How Covid-19 is transforming telehealth⁠—now and in the future

    Now some polls are showing that the Covid-19 epidemic has led almost a quarter (23%) of Americans to try telehealth. The leading telehealth companies are reporting huge surges in use and systems are seeing large spikes in patient interest.

    But will that interest remain as the months go on, the country starts to reopen, and patients feel more comfortable seeing their doctor in person again?

    On the Radio Advisory podcast, we spent an episode exploring what Covid-19 has meant for telehealth, why leaders must adopt it now, and what it will look like in the future. And we thought our conversation around this last question—how telehealth could change in the future—was worth highlighting as providers start asking themselves the question above.

    Read an excerpt from a conversation between host Rachel Woods and Advisory Board telehealth expert John League, then download the podcast to hear the full conversation:

    Rachel (Rae) Woods:  John, we know there are a lot of barriers to overcome to really having telehealth be something that is adopted widespread after the pandemic, despite its clear use case right now. Why could this time have a lasting impact?

    John League: It's true that there are barriers, but I want to point out that this is the first time that telehealth has really been put to the test at-scale. We’ve always looked at digital tools with an eye towards what they could potentially do for us in the future, but they are already tremendously valuable right now. With hospitals and health systems investing time and resources and standing up telehealth offerings—that’s a very solid foundation for them to build on after the pandemic. And for the hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of patients, who will be using telehealth for the very first time, they may want and even expect to get these services in the future.

    Rae Woods: I am curious, have you ever used telehealth? What did you think of it?

    John League: I have not used telehealth. And that is largely because I am a care delayer much to my wife’s dismay. I prefer to suffer rather than go to the doctor. Although I have to say that this has certainly changed my perspective on whether wandering around with a severe cough is the right idea—it certainly won’t be socially acceptable going forward.

    The interesting thing that I have seen though—you mentioned [earlier in the podcast] that you often spend a little too much time on Twitter and LinkedIn—is across these social channels, people are talking about telehealth for the first time in a way that I've never seen. And so far, I have not seen anyone comment on a first virtual visit in a way that wasn't positive. Lots of comments about, "I hope that this is the way primary care happens from now on," "It was very easy," "It was so convenient," "I don't want to go park and wait and sit and have to drive." Certainly the convenience factor here is going to really solve a desire that consumers are demanding.

    What we'll have to get over in the future is the supply angle: Will physicians be compensated appropriately for doing this kind of work? Will we be able to build the infrastructure that allows people to do virtual visits in the convenient kind of way that they want?

    Rae Woods: I think as a fellow person who also delays care, I used telehealth services for the first time at the beginning of this month for exactly these purposes. I had a cough…and I was scared. And my need in the moment was peace of mind. It was 9 p.m. on a Sunday, I got to get on a virtual visit and at least had clear next steps. My fears were tamped down and, myself as another consumer that typically delays care, telehealth is going to be my first choice next time.

    John League: And one other angle on this. One of my friends is pregnant, and obviously her care can’t be delayed. The baby is going to come when the baby comes. She reached out to her provider who was unwilling to do a virtual visit. And her words about that situation cannot be repeated on the podcast. But I think the idea that seeing the availability of this, and how easy it is for other people, really casts providers who don’t offer service in a bad light.

    Rae Woods: That's right. And it's hard because when we talk about the completive landscape in healthcare, we typically are actually talking about things in our backyard. Think about your community, what are the traditional health systems, the physician groups, and then those third parties—the CVS, the Walgreens of the world. But when we talk about telehealth, we actually are not talking about competition in your community. The competition can be national. It can be global. What is going to happen if you want to see a dermatologist and you can get connected to "Laguna Beach Dermatology" and that’s where you are going to choose to get your care? 

    John League: One of the interesting technology things that's on the horizon for us is the 5G network. It will be one of the game changers for telehealth. The low-latency (which means that the commands and the responses go so much faster) and the bandwidth (the ability to send files of exceedingly high resolution in big size and at a fast rate) means that we will be able to connect to providers in ways that we never have before.

    Your example was dermatology; certainly with high resolution images being able to transmit in real time, you absolutely could see a dermatologist on the other side of the country, or maybe even on the other side of the world! That’s one of the things we need to be mindful of as we move through here. It's not just what Covid is doing to us as consumers and as the healthcare industry, there’s also other factors out there that are going to make this even more important moving forward.  

    Rae Woods: And as these things happen I am sure we are going to be coming back to you for more questions and more answers when it comes to technology and telehealth. Before I let you get back to your day, there is one final question that I want to ask you, and it’s one that I am asking all of my guests here at Radio Advisory as a way to close our time. So regarding telehealth, what is the one thing, the one piece of advice, the one focus area that you would tell executives to pinpoint and put all of their attention to this week?

    John League: On telehealth, this is what I want you to be thinking about this week. I’m begging please don't ask, "What should our telehealth strategy be?" Just don’t do it. This week, I want you to think about the strategy you already have. Now, maybe you are actively revising that strategy in light of Covid. Totally fair. But either way, think about how you can integrate telehealth into your strategy to help meet the objectives you already have. Telehealth cannot just be a side hustle. It can’t be a nice-to-have anymore. It is an essential part of caregiving.

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