Telemedicine has seen slow and steady growth in the U.S. in recent years, with the rise of apps like Doctor on Demand, by which patients with non-life-threatening medical issues can pay for an e-visit with a licensed physician. However, issues with fee reimbursement as well as technology and credentialing hurdles have so far prevented telemedicine from fully entering the mainstream.
The current coronavirus pandemic has changed all this – virtually overnight. Prior to the nationwide outbreak of COVID-19, Medicare enacted strict guidelines that prevented many patients over 65 and those living in rural areas from accessing telemedicine services. As of March 17, 2020, CMS has expanded access to telemedicine, while allowing providers to waive or reduce costs.
While these restrictions have only been temporarily lifted on an emergency basis, some experts believe that COVID-19 has broken the barriers to mainstream telemedicine once and for all. Forbes Technology Council member Douglas Smith is Managing Director at Wavestone, a global consultancy of former healthcare technology executives with a focus on leading digital transformation. Smith, who formerly led the Cleveland Clinic’s initial telehealth efforts, says that providers forced to adopt telemedicine in their short-term response to COVID-19 will recognize telemedicine as essential in the long term.
“While the pandemic in the near term is forcing organizations to adopt telemedicine, it is also widening the digital divide and accelerating changes in how care is delivered. To meet this exponential growth, healthcare providers must be prepared to invest in the technology and credentialing required to support telemedicine, or they will be left behind,” Smith said.
Because the impact of COVID-19 is so unprecedented, it has caught most healthcare providers off guard. Many telemedicine companies serving providers and hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic are struggling with inadequate staff and IT while experiencing an extraordinary surge in demand. In addition to the need for adequate hardware, IT and access to broadband, there is a learning curve when it comes to adopting telemedicine. “The industry trend impacts people, technology platforms, devices, regulations and the processes that support it. The most unprepared for this trend are traditional hospital systems and large physician practices,” Smith said.
Telemedicine has already expanded access to care and reduced its cost. Smith likened healthcare’s linear shift toward telemedicine to the retail industry’s shift away from brick-and-mortar stores. Yet, he says COVID-19 has incited such an acceleration in telemedicine’s growth that it’s forcing the entire ecosystem to rethink how healthcare is delivered. “In most cases, technology has advanced more rapidly than populations have been willing to adopt it, but this existential shock in the form of a pandemic will essentially fast-forward technology adoption in healthcare,” he said.
Consequently, Smith says several of his clients have been rethinking their approach to healthcare delivery – specifically driving focus to an asset-light model that leverages resources in a distributed way and increases efficacy of treatment with the combination of population and personalized data, televisits, remote telemetry and standardized care plans.
Smith believes that providers who are able to capitalize by driving long-term shifts in how they engage patients and manage their care at a distance will emerge to dominate the healthcare industry. “The regulatory system is fast-tracking new devices and medicines while reducing constraints for physicians and caregivers to operate at a distance,” he said.
“This new strategy fueled by the current crisis will pay dividends when a new normal is established,” Smith said. Because the necessary technologies are already available and consumer behavior is likely forever impacted by COVID-19, he believes the healthcare industry’s willingness to invest in telemedicine will be the most critical factor.
In the short term, providers need to acquire underlying infrastructure with the operational capability to connect patients with the right resources. In the long term, Smith says healthcare models will be entirely reconceptualized to include telemedicine. He advises providers to seize the opportunity: “Never waste a crisis. Care and disease management at a distance are now part of the new normal.”