If there is one positive that can be gleaned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the push that it has given telehealth. Despite its potential of improving access and even lowering costs, telehealth has been slow to enter mainstream healthcare, and in 2019, was only used by 8% of Americans. A number of challenges has slowed wider implementation including limited reimbursement by payers, lack of comfort with telemedicine technologies by both patients and providers, and few incentives to replace face to face care.
With the COVID-19 pandemic came mandated social distancing policies that severely curtailed normal routine and even urgent care and forced health care providers, seemingly overnight, into a virtual healthcare world. Fortunately, despite its limited use, many healthcare systems had been investing in building a telemedicine capacity, almost as if anticipating a future where it would be needed.
Called by many names–digital health, virtual care, telehealth and telemedicine—they all refer to a practice of healthcare where patients interact with their clinicians using some form of technology. It can be as simple as using the telephone to replace an in person visit, to more sophisticated video-enabled platforms where the interaction is face to face but virtually. But using telehealth has definitely been a learning experience for both providers and patients, pulling both sides into making the best use of this technology.
So has it been successful? The answer to that varies considerably, but one large health system, which had already been integrating telehealth into their model, recently reported that it has largely been a success.
New York University’s Langone Health, located in the COVID-19 epicenter of the US in New York City, found that between March 2nd and April 14th, their “visits” via telemedicine jumped from 102.4 to 801.6 each day (683% increase) in urgent care following a system-wide expansion of virtual care in response to the pandemic. More than half (56.2%) in urgent care were related to COVID 19, as were 17.6% of nonurgent visits. Overall, there were 144,940 video visits that involved 115,789 individual patients and 2,656 providers. But despite the fact that providers were largely inexperienced with telemedicine, patient satisfaction ratings with telemedicine visits remained unchanged after the rapid surge in its use.
The COVID-19 crisis continues although slowing down in some parts of the country. It remains to be seen if telehealth use will continue once the pandemic abates, and replace in person visits when feasible, and if the technology will also continue to be expanded.
Schwamm, L.H., Erskine, A. & Licurse, A. A digital embrace to blunt the curve of COVID19 pandemic. npj Digit. Med. 3, 64 (2020).
Devin M Mann, Ji Chen, Rumi Chunara, Paul A Testa, Oded Nov, COVID-19 transforms health care through telemedicine: Evidence from the field, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, , ocaa072, https://doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocaa072