Our healthcare system is vulnerable to disruption – the pandemic has made that clear. But disruption is a springboard for innovation, and in the past two years, the rapid growth of telehealth has led to better outcomes for patients and made our healthcare system more resilient.
Telehealth is now an inseparable part of our healthcare system and enjoys overwhelming patient satisfaction. And that’s mainly because officials temporarily waived outdated regulations that limited its use. But many of these waivers are set to expire within months after the public health emergency ends; we must take action now to ensure millions of Americans don’t lose access to this crucial care. It’s time to make telehealth reform permanent.
As we moved into a remote environment at the start of Covid, more and more healthcare providers adopted telehealth practices to help patients maintain their access to care amid stay-at-home orders and other pandemic measures. That meant connecting patients to vital healthcare services through videoconferencing, remote monitoring, virtual consultations, and wireless communications.
And it’s hard to overstate just how important telehealth has been for our healthcare system during this pandemic. The number of telehealth patient visits through Medicare, for example, surged from around 840,000 in 2019 to over 52 million in 2020.
It was a clear advantage for patients: With the pandemic keeping us inside our homes, why wouldn’t you choose to “visit” your doctor through your laptop or smartphone? It was good for clinicians as well. Telehealth reduces no-show appointments, improves efficiency and costs of care. Plus, it increases patient engagement and satisfaction. From a personal perspective, my wife, a retina surgeon, loves maintaining her patient relationships and her patients love the convenience.
Remote access to healthcare wasn’t just a popular alternative because it reduced the risk of exposure to Covid; virtual appointments also tend to be cheaper than in-person appointments on a per-visit basis. While a visit to your doctor’s office costs $146 on average, a telehealth visit costs just $79 on average.
In other words, telehealth became a great equalizer in a healthcare system where social and economic disparities continue to affect patient care. It provides an affordable and convenient option for patients, particularly those from underserved communities such as rural, elderly and differently-abled people, who may not be able to visit a doctor in person.
The success of telehealth these past two years shows us that innovations in digital health are reshaping how we think about care. It also shows us the vital role of technology in responding to health emergencies.
And most importantly, Americans support telehealth and continued access to these services by overwhelming margins.
In one recent survey, 90 percent of American voters who used telehealth services reported having a positive experience, and 81 percent support the federal government’s decision to lift restrictions on telehealth in response to the pandemic.
Americans rely on telehealth and want to use these services even after the pandemic is over. So, telling patients that the rules will change once federal telehealth waivers expire is just not realistic, not when it’s helped tens of millions of people during the largest health emergency in a century.
That’s a big reason why we should applaud Congress for including an extension to telehealth flexibilities through Medicare in the latest omnibus spending package, which President Biden signed into law this month. It ensures that access to this crucial mode of care will continue for at least five months after the federal government declares an end to the public health emergency (PHE) it first announced in 2020.
It’s a step in the right direction, but the law doesn’t do enough to guarantee continued access to telehealth. That’s because the PHE must be renewed every 90 days, and is set to expire on April 16. Although the Biden administration is expected to renew the PHE next month, there is still too much uncertainty around whether patients can keep using telehealth once the pandemic is over.
To alleviate these concerns, Congress must provide the Department of Health and Human Services the authority and flexibility to continue all federal telehealth waivers once the administration declares an end to the PHE.
But the most important step we can take is to make telehealth reform permanent. Congress must establish a pathway for comprehensive telehealth reform to guarantee that this critical service becomes a permanent and readily accessible option for every American.
We have an opportunity to bring our healthcare system into the 21st century. Our communities have experienced the powerful impact that innovations in digital health have in closing the gaps that were opened by Covid. It’s time to ensure that everyone can continue to access care where and when they need it.
Photo: MikeyLPT, Getty Images