Use is on the rise, and at-home health care is here to stay

While telehealth has been available for some time, the pandemic has exponentially increased its use. And the use of telehealth will continue post-pandemic as people embrace the convenience of obtaining care from home.

“Telehealth has been incredibly useful in terms of providing access to needed care during the pandemic,” says David S. Webster, M.D., MBA, Vice President and Executive Medical Director, Clinical Services, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “Usage may differ as we leave the pandemic, and we will still see a significant number of in-person visits, but there is a wider acceptance of telehealth. And in the future, telehealth care will simply be considered health care as more care is moved to the home.”

Smart Business spoke with Webster about the increased usage of telehealth services and the future of the industry.

How has the pandemic sped up the move toward telehealth?

At the beginning of the pandemic, telehealth was a niche service. Then in March 2020, with the advent of stay-at-home orders, access to health care at medical clinics became nearly nonexistent. Almost overnight, telehealth went from nearly zero percent usage to being the way the majority of care was accessed — telehealth visits for our members increased 3,400 percent in 2020. With as quickly as it happened, many expected it would be a challenge, but it went much more smoothly than expected.

What kinds of conditions can be diagnosed and treated via telehealth — and which can’t?

One big area is behavioral health. A physical exam is rarely necessary as part of behavioral health treatment, so telehealth is a good fit. For some patients, there is a perceived stigma in going into a doctor’s office to receive behavioral health care. Telehealth allows someone to connect one on one with a doctor in a more private setting, from their home.

Telehealth can also be used as a screening tool, with a physician asking simple yes or no questions to determine if the person can be safely treated with telehealth or if they need a different care setting. There are a significant number of important diagnostic cues that can be derived through audio and video, simply by observing and asking questions.

In addition, many things that would be treated in an urgent care setting can be diagnosed via telehealth. Telehealth can also be used for the management of chronic diseases, when someone needs to be followed closely to ensure a disease doesn’t progress. That monitoring doesn’t necessarily require in-person care and can oftentimes be conducted remotely.

What are the benefits of telehealth?

The No. 1 attraction for patients is convenience. With a typical visit to a doctor’s office, you have to get in your car, drive to that location, check in, sit in the waiting room, get moved to the exam room, have the exam, check out and drive home. With telehealth, patients are notified when the doctor is ready to see them and they proceed directly to the appointment without leaving home.

In rural areas, there may be broadband challenges to resolve for optimum effectiveness of telehealth appointments. But conversely, if you live in a rural area, you may have to drive long distances for medical care.

With telehealth, you can now access some care directly from your home. And age doesn’t seem to be a deterrent; in 2020, nearly half of our members over the age of 60 participated in a telehealth appointment.

The key in health care is to simplify care, make it proactive and personalize it. We expect to see a continued uptake in telehealth usage and acceptance as part of a broader transition to receiving care at home. Telehealth will be part of creating an excellent experience for the consumer.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield