“Don’t think twice about it. It’s worth it”—that’s the advice Jessica Pascua has for parents considering the Early Intervention program, a federally and state-mandated program now implementing telehealth services that focuses on meeting the health needs of young children.
“It has really been a life support for our family,” she says. “If you can have that extra support, take it.”
The Turner Family, who participated in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Remote Patient Monitoring Program, were also happy to have the virtual support offered by the program for their son, Atlas, who was born with a rare defect, known as omphalocele. Mrs. Turner especially felt comforted, having “an avenue to contact someone immediately with an issue.”
Today, there are truly an overwhelming amount of telehealth success stories that speak to the substantially beneficial impact of this expanding practice. In a post-COVID-19 reality in which the importance of telehealth cannot be overstated, measures must be taken to ensure that its future is not stifled by contradictory regulation, so its services can continue to grow to meet the needs of more patients.
Prior to the pandemic, many patients and providers were skeptical of telehealth’s effectiveness in terms of patient care and health outcomes. Payers and policymakers were concerned about the cost of telehealth. Outdated legislation hindered much of the opportunity for telehealth utilization and expansion. Now, both patients and providers have become more willing to utilize telehealth services and previous telehealth restrictions were relaxed to accommodate the special circumstances of the pandemic.
The new system addresses many issues within our health care system—especially the exorbitant increase in health care costs in recent years.
Prior to the pandemic, policymakers restricted access to telehealth services over worries that increased utilization would inflate health care spending. Contrarily, telehealth actually drives down overall health care spending. Virtual health care services present lower cost to the consumer while also prioritizing convenience. The average telehealth patient’s health care expenses fell by a substantial 61% between January 2020 and February 2021.
Moreover, telehealth can also save providers money, allowing them to effectively treat patients outside of the office, using fewer resources. Due to the convenience of telehealth services, improved access and incentives to seek out preventative care also decreases spending. Finally, it is believed that up to 20% of all emergency room visits could be avoided through virtual urgent care offerings, which could mitigate inflated spending brought on by the substantial increases in potentially unnecessary emergency department visits. Recent research claims that if telehealth services were expanded to reach their full potential, approximately $250 billion in health care spending could be shifted to less expensive, virtual care options.
The expansion of telehealth services also allows for increased availability of services, improving access for patients in rural areas and addressing the provider shortages in many parts of the country. Telehealth has also shown to improve follow-up care by making it more convenient for both patients and providers. Lastly, for patients suffering from a chronic illness in need of frequent consultations, virtual health services provide a substantial level of comfort and convenience while still allowing providers to monitor the patient’s condition. However, there are still concerns, including potential disparities in access and appropriate payment for telehealth services compared to in-person care.
Driving the debate of how legislation should address telehealth expansion is the question of payment. Recently, payment parity mandates have gained traction, requiring insurers to pay the same price for all telehealth services as they do for in-person appointments. Payment parity inherently threatens the effectiveness of telehealth, negating many of its proven benefits. These mandates undermine one of the essential benefits of telehealth—its cost-effectiveness—as they demand patients and insurers pay more for a lower cost service, contributing to the rising cost of health care rather than mitigating it. Moreover, patients may also skip care altogether if the affordable option of virtual care becomes more expensive, neglecting strides telehealth has made in accessibility to preventative care and primary care.
Much has already been done to establish telehealth as a fixture of our health care system and extend its benefits, including actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the list of practitioners eligible to provide telehealth, widening the variety of care patients have access to virtually, the enactment of the CONNECT For Health Act, which permanently extends the COVID-era telehealth reforms and allows providers to deliver these virtual services to Medicare beneficiaries in every community in the United States, and the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access legislation, which allows providers to offer virtual care to Medicare patients in any area of the country and permits patients to receive these services at home.
Ensuring that these reforms remain effective, instituting more legislation to protect and expand telehealth services, and pushing back against mandates that undermine the benefits of telehealth are the priorities for stabilizing the future of telehealth—a new normal that empowers progress.