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How COVID-19 May Permanently Change U.S. Healthcare Delivery

The use of telehealth services rapidly expanded in the U.S. after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The changes in the way that health care was delivered were needed to help stop the spread of the disease.

But will the momentum continue after the pandemic subsides? There are signs that it might.

Before the pandemic, telehealth was almost exclusively used by mental health providers, according to IQVIA, a data company that tracks trends in healthcare. While many therapists combined telehealth and in-person therapy before COVID-19, telehealth became a mainstay for therapists after people started social distancing and quarantining.

“It’s fair to say that telemedicine was in its infancy prior to the pandemic, but it’s come of age this year,” IQVIA’s Murray Aitken told The Associated Press.

In research conducted earlier this year, IQVIA found that the use of telehealth has expanded and that it is now being used by doctors to treat patients with a variety of illnesses including high blood pressure and diabetes. The firm found that younger patients were faster to adopt telehealth because it’s a “natural extension of their digital lives and many of their conditions are more easily treated remotely.” Some older patients found the technology more challenging.

A poll of older adults by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation found that more than 7 in 10 are interested in using telehealth for follow-ups with their doctor, according to AP.

ThinkLabs, which makes digital stethoscopes, has also had a surge in sales because of COVID-19. The company’s founder, Clive Smith, predicts that after the pandemic, patients will be unwilling to return to status quo healthcare. 

Smith told Healthcare IT News that now that patients have seen how convenient telehealth can be, they won’t want to go back.

"What I always felt about telemedicine, is that essentially it was [like] buying books in 1996," he told Healthcare IT News. "In 1996, if you said to someone, 'How do you feel about buying books online?' they would say, 'Buying it online is kind of a vacuous experience, I'd rather go to a bookstore.'" 

"You fast forward, and eventually it's too convenient" to avoid, he said. "I know that I can get it on my doorstep. Convenience eventually wins."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was at the forefront of pushing for expanded access to telehealth before COVID-19. 

In July 2020, he introduced a bill calling for a significant and permanent expansion of the availability of telehealth services in Medicare. 

“Telehealth allows seniors, especially those with multiple chronic conditions, to stay on top of their medical care without taking unnecessary risks or the inconvenience of leaving home,” he said in a press release.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) also is proposing changes to permanently expand telehealth to improve access and convenience for Medicare beneficiaries, particularly those living in rural areas. 

And the American Hospital Association is asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make the expanded COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities permanent. In August, AHA sent a letter saying “patients have been empowered by this flexibility to seek and receive virtual care.” The letter urges the president and Congress to “create a future for telehealth that allows not only clinicians but also hospitals and health systems, to code and bill for virtual services.”