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microscopic view of the virus

Effects of COVID on Telehealth

Telehealth Hit its Stride as COVID-19 Raged

Telehealth sprinted from being an underutilized way to deliver healthcare to being a widely used essential service when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020. Now that vaccines are available and many pandemic restrictions are being lifted - a big push is underway to keep the expanded telehealth services from slowing to a crawl.

According to an article in Kaiser Health News, doctors and patients like the service - especially behavioral health patients. 

A survey cited by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), found that 80% of people using community behavioral health services said telehealth was as good or better than the in-person services they used before the pandemic.

Vizient Clinical Practice Solutions Center found that “While virtual visits in many areas dropped after their early peak, behavioral health, and neurology appointments represented 68% and 40% of visits in January 2021, respectively.

Vizient said a January 2021 survey showed that 78% of healthcare consumers indicated they want to continue virtual visits even after the pandemic eases and 93% said they were likely to continue video sessions moving forward with existing providers.

Consumer groups, healthcare leaders, and some lawmakers are pushing Congress and the Biden administration to keep the telehealth services that became legal because of COVID-19 public health emergency measures. In April, a bipartisan group of 50 U.S. Senators reintroduced legislation to make the COVID-19 telehealth options permanent and to expand telehealth access.

The bill is called the CONNECT Act (Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies for Health Act of 2021). A version of the bill was first introduced in 2016. 

“The last year has shown us that telehealth works, it’s popular, and it’s here to stay,” said U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i). “Our comprehensive bill makes it easier for more people to safely get the care they need no matter where they live.”

“Telehealth is enabling more people to receive the care they need, leading to improved outcomes and lower costs,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “This bipartisan legislation would build on the success of telehealth in states like Mississippi to eliminate existing barriers and expand access to lifesaving care for more Americans.”

According to a statement from Sen. Schatz the CONNECT Act would:

  • Permanently remove geographic restrictions on telehealth services 
  • Continue allowing health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services (a provision temporarily currently in place due to the pandemic)
  • Provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the permanent authority to waive telehealth restrictions (again, this is currently a temporary provision in place due to the pandemic)
  • Allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies
  • Require a study to learn more about how telehealth has been used during the COVID-19 pandemic

Bloomberg reports that the Biden administration has signaled it will leave emergency telehealth measures in place at least through 2021.

COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on telehealth. Providers and patients are now familiar with it and many patients have decided they prefer it. According to the Vizient study, this gives all of us an “opportunity to rethink long-standing approaches” to healthcare delivery.

By Amanda Barnett, LPC, NCC, EdS

Key Sources

Vizient Clinical Practice Solutions Center Study: Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Telehealth

Kaiser Health News: COVID was a tipping point for telehealth. If doctors and patients have their way, virtual visits are here to stay.

Bloomberg: Politicians Rush to Preserve Popular Pandemic-Era Telemedicine

Statement from U.S. Sen. Schatz

Telehealth Acceptability and Feasibility Among People Served in a Community Behavioral Health System During the COVID-19 Pandemic