Telehealth became a lifeline to hospitals and clinics in 2020. Physicians needed new ways to provide the same quality of care for patients while minimizing the chance of spreading COVID-19. And patients who had become used to remote everything expected the same kind of remote access to healthcare.
Some of the most common users of telehealth were emergency departments, especially during the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns. Teletriage, often with mobile apps, helped nurses route patients to the right place. Bunkered physicians provided remote care. And quarantined (but otherwise healthy) staff were able to join the fight against the virus, thanks to telemedicine.
Looking ahead to 2021, we can expect to see the acceptance and widespread use of telemedicine grow far beyond emergency departments:
1. Telepsychiatry and Teletherapy to Treat Mental Illness
While the world’s physical health received extra attention as communities did what they could to prevent the spread of the virus, the mental health and wellness of children, teens and adults still suffered. Lockdowns, social isolation, departure from routine, and fear of the unknown increased peoples’ levels of anxiety and depression.
According to the WHO, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide. Those who were already receiving mental health services faced new challenges as their clinics closed to in-person care, their support groups were sent home, and their outlets for physical activity were severely limited.
To treat patients who could no longer receive their in-person services, many therapists, counselors, and doctors quickly turned to video conferencing. This trend toward teletherapy and telepsychiatry will continue to rise in 2021 as mental health professionals will seek more user friendly and secure video connections that integrate with their EHRs.
2. Telehealth to Prevent and Treat Chronic Disease
Sixty percent of adults in the US have a chronic disease, which includes heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Lifestyle changes and preventative care can help people prevent and treat these diseases. Unfortunately, many people don’t follow through on their treatment plans, don’t take their prescriptions correctly, or don’t receive the regular checkups and care they need to manage their symptoms.
Non-adherence to care plans costs the health care system billions of dollars each year.
When patients don’t follow through with their plans and don’t take their medications as prescribed, their symptoms worsen, making their care more difficult and expensive, and reducing their length and quality of life. However, when these check-ins happen more frequently–monthly instead of annually, for example–they are more effective, can catch small problems before they worsen, and can help ensure more individuals take their prescribed medications correctly.
Telehealth is a convenient way for a patient with a chronic disease and their physician to quickly connect. All it takes is a single click or tap and they can discuss the latest symptoms or progress made in their treatment plan. Telehealth can improve patient engagement and care coordination at reduced cost to the healthcare system without being as intrusive to the patient as regular in-person visits.
Physicians and health care systems will continue turning to telemedicine for even more preventative education and follow-up care in 2021.
3. Wearable Technology and Telehealth
Telehealth for chronic disease treatment and prevention will also grow as more people use wearable technologies to track their activity levels, heart rates, blood pressure, gait, sleep cycles, posture, glucose levels, and more. Wearable devices could also track the spread of pandemic-related symptoms.
Armed with additional data that can span a patient’s entire typical day, health practitioners will be able to make more insightful diagnoses and recommendations. When these devices are integrated with a secure telehealth platform and EHR, physicians and other care team members will be able to intervene at the first sign of trouble.
However, wearables and telehealth will only see significant growth if patients trust the security and privacy measures put in place. The telehealth platform and devices must also be user friendly and integrate easily into daily routines for both patient and provider.
4. Convenient Remote Pediatric Care
Parents everywhere are relieved when it’s easier, more convenient, and less costly to secure quality care for their sick child. Telemedicine provides parents with greater access to specialists no matter their location. Plus, it cuts down on disruptive travel time that can affect whole families as they seek care.
While pediatric telemedicine was already seeing some growth before 2020, it will become more widespread in the next few years as this upcoming generation of parents is more accustomed to using virtual technology than those before them.
5. Virtual Optometry Sees Telehealth Growth
Regular eye exams are necessary to detect eye problems in their early stages. Telehealth for optometry is one way people can receive the preventative and maintenance care they need to protect their vision.
Advanced telehealth platforms will not require patients to download an extra app to communicate with their eye doctors. Optometrists can use video-based telehealth tools to evaluate eyelid conditions and other patient complaints related to redness, itching, and burning of the eyes. Other conditions that optometrists can continue to evaluate using telehealth include: glaucoma, macular degeneration, and allergic reactions. Some optometrists even ship vision therapy tools to their patients.
Many individuals can also renew their prescriptive lenses from home.
What About Payers & ACOs?
Now that patients are more accepting–and even demanding–telehealth and virtual health care, we predict that in the coming years more payers and Accountable Care Organizations will ensure equal coverage and reimbursement for telemedicine services.
Of course telemedicine is more convenient for patients who would otherwise have to organize and plan for transportation–but it boasts many other strategic benefits, including improving public health through regular preventative care and improved access to care.
Bluestream Health is thrilled to be part of bringing better care to all through telehealth!