Telehealth benefits & challenges

April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021

When the emerging COVID-19 pandemic led to stay-at-home orders that were imposed nationwide in March 2020, there was a sudden shift to working from home whenever possible, teaching students via online platforms, and turning appointments into virtual meetings. Healthcare was also affected, with the switch to telehealth for many appointments that before would have occurred in person. 

Explosion of telehealth use during COVID-19

The use of telehealth services already had been growing pre-pandemic, with COVID-19 inspiring some providers to move swiftly ahead, as well as push the evolution further. Others have been slow or resistant to transition any services online, not wanting to abandon in-person appointments and clinic hours. Some patients have found it impossible to use telehealth services due to the countless barriers that keep telehealth from being widely accessible, such as payer reimbursement and access to necessary technology.

Telehealth became a lifeline for patients with a critical need to stay home and for healthcare workers who were fighting diligently to ensure there were enough hospital beds for those flooding through their doors. As the weeks passed and the curve flattened for the first time, many states began to reopen, prompting the question—will the use of telehealth dwindle or is this a moment in which telehealth becomes a permanent healthcare option? Regardless, here’s a brief look at the good and the bad of telehealth’s rise.

Telehealth benefits

Here are some of the benefits of telehealth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Reducing the strain on healthcare systems by accommodating patient demand
  • Reduce the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare staff
  • Maintain continuity of care without risking infection exposure
  • Increased access to healthcare services, especially among vulnerable populations
  • Facilitate coaching and support for those affected by chronic health conditions
  • Improve case management and care transitions for those who have trouble accessing care
  • Enhance non-emergent and low risk care for congregate care populations
  • Improves medical consultations and second opinions for patients who would have difficulty meeting other doctors in person

Telehealth drawbacks

Telehealth does come with challenges, as well. According to Harvard Health Publishing, here are some of the drawbacks:

  • “It isn't possible to do every type of visit remotely. You still have to go into the office for things like imaging tests and blood work, as well as for diagnoses that require a more hands-on approach.
  • The security of personal health data transmitted electronically is a concern.
  • While insurance companies are increasingly covering the cost of telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic, some services may not be fully covered, leading to out-of-pocket costs.”

Medical News Today offers some additional disadvantages:

  • Potential care delays – the requirement to access telemedicine first for care, especially in emergency situations, may be a disastrous delay when care is urgently needed.
  • Technology problems can be a giant hurdle for patients trying to access care at home, affecting the quality of the communication between patient and provider.
  • The inability to physically examine patients can be an impediment to high quality care. Relying on question-response interactions might mean that a patient “leaves out an important symptom that might have been noticeable during in-person care,” which can seriously compromise treatment and ultimate outcomes.
  • Payors and healthcare providers are still figuring out some of the intricacies of provider services, insurance coverage, and reimbursement related to telehealth. CMS has definitely done their part to make it possible, at least on a temporary basis.

Telehealth after the Coronavirus pandemic

in an interview in Modern Healthcare Paul Black, CEO of Allscripts, describes how telehealth has come of age. He adds, “This is the tipping point for telehealth. Never again will the default workflow for seeing most patients/consumers be instructions to come to the office, urgent care clinic or hospital emergency room.” U.S. healthcare providers, much of the business side of healthcare, and patients have definitely begun to adjust to using FaceTime or Zoom for work as well as for a basic healthcare check in, so it seems that there may be no turning back. Given the need to reduce unnecessary health expenditures and slow the increase in the cost of healthcare, we may have little choice but to make telehealth an important initial step in the process of getting healthcare.

To support caregivers and healthcare organizations as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, HealthStream is offering a collection of carefully curated courses to all customers for free. Likewise, Using HealthStream’s Channels platform for video learning, we have a created a free-access COVID19 Channel in response to the COVID19 pandemic, specifically to support healthcare workers and their families. It contains a collection of curated videos provided by HealthStream and HealthStream’s content partners from several trusted sources on YouTube, such as the CDC and Mayo Clinic.