The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a rising trend in the number of people seeking basic health care services outside of traditional clinical settings. Out of necessity to reduce strain on health care organizations caring for severely ill patients and to mitigate the spread of the virus by keeping people at home, clinicians and patients in record numbers adopted new ways of interacting.
Whether accessed via a website, an app, video, or the telephone, telehealth and many people’s newfound familiarity with it will significantly change the way health care is delivered forever.
Telehealth’s promise of added convenience for consumers and reduced costs for health care organizations has been discussed by health policy leaders for decades. Yet, widespread adoption was limited in most of the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many health care providers were not interested in or incentivized to offer telehealth as a care delivery option. Instead, they chose to invest their resources in traditional care delivery. When the pandemic took hold, incentives changed as patients demanded safer pathways to care, and new reimbursement and regulatory flexibilities were enacted.
In addition, policymakers removed barriers to telehealth adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling America’s health care system to respond quickly and protect patients. Health systems reported 50 to 175 times the number of telehealth visits compared to pre-COVID-19 data, according to a recent study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Providers also report greater comfort levels in offering these services and expanding them to include more direct patient interactions. At Kaiser Permanente, we conducted 28 times more video visits in 2020 compared with 2019. Consistent with national trends, the overwhelming majority of our members who use video visits express satisfaction with these services.
Telehealth is here to stay, but what form it will take and how accessible and equitable it will become is unknown.
Policymakers and health system leaders must consider how to decrease care access disparities and reach populations that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — people who are poor, have limited access to high-speed internet, live in rural areas, rely on Medicaid and Medicare, or are uninsured. At Kaiser Permanente, we have worked to track and improve equitable access, and we will continue this work going forward.
How successfully telehealth and traditional care can be aligned across providers also is in doubt. In recent years, independent telehealth services have appeared, but few of them connect with patients’ traditional care providers, leaving the risk that patients will be left managing their own care with no coordinated support from health care teams.
Integrated care organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Mayo Clinic, and Geisinger offer a glimpse at how telehealth and traditional in-person care can be well aligned to support and protect patient health. As an integrated health system, Kaiser Permanente captures every telehealth and traditional-care encounter in a patient’s electronic health record, giving doctors and other clinicians a more complete picture of a patient’s health.
Kaiser Permanente will continue to play an active role in helping the nation’s health care system realize the full potential of telehealth. As part of that effort, our Institute for Health Policy hosted an online forum featuring leading telehealth experts to address key questions shaping the future of telehealth. The full event recording of Telehealth After the Pandemic: Perils, Promise, and Possibility is available on the Institute for Health Policy’s website.