2020 was telehealth's year — But what is its future?

Before 2020, few in the healthcare industry questioned the potential utility of telehealth. Its benefits were obvious, the technology itself was robust and well-developed — but all the same, it never quite hit mainstream adoption. Then COVID-19 changed everything.

As in-person appointments became untenable, organizations scrambled to find ways to take care of their customers. Widespread adoption of telehealth was perhaps the inevitable result. But what will follow on the heels of that development? Once the pandemic is behind us, what role will telehealth play in the future of care?

This executive brief will use data from NRC Health's 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report to explore what drove telehealth’s rapid rise — and what’s likely in store for the technology’s future.

What's behind telehealth's rise?

It's perhaps not a surprise that telehealth should have surged so much in the era of social distancing. All the same, the scope of virtual care’s rise has been startling. Compared with 2018 rates, telehealth utilization nearly tripled in 2020, from 7.8 percent to 26.9 percent. The pandemic is the most obvious explanation for the increase. Consumers feared to enter healthcare settings, and telehealth was a reasonable substitute.

However, the coronavirus was not the only factor at play. Even given a historic public health emergency, the explosion in telehealth volumes would not have been possible without two other important drivers of change. The first of these was a clarification — and relaxation — of reimbursement requirements for telehealth appointments. Prior to the pandemic, consumers had long been signaling an appetite for virtual care. But providers were hard-pressed to offer it, as payers had not yet achieved a consensus on how telehealth appointments should be reimbursed.

That all changed in 2020, as CMS loosened the purse strings on telehealth payments, and private payers quickly followed suit. Suddenly, provider organizations had robust incentives to offer telehealth services. This led to the second change-driver: healthcare organizations' own technological agility.

The scale of health systems' achievements with telehealth cannot be overstated. Under enormous pressure, even amid an unprecedentedcrisis, healthcare organizations managed to design, develop and deploy comprehensive virtual care programs — sometimes in just a matter of weeks. Truly, it was one of the greatest success stories of the pandemic.

How to make telehealth work

Organizations' success with telehealth is further underscored by how much consumers appear to have enjoyed their virtual care experiences.

NRC Health data, drawn from over 150,000 telehealth encounters in 2020, delivers an overwhelming verdict: 92 percent of these patients have positive reports to give about their virtual care experiences. But what qualities, exactly, made these experiences so exceptional? Emphasized in these positive reports were the outstanding work of facilitating providers.

Promoters of telehealth:

  • Singled out provider attentiveness, courtesy and respect
  • Reported having ample time to spend with their providers
  • Had a seamless connection experience, with few technological hiccups

There were consumers, however, who had less-glowing things to say about their virtual care. These detractors:

  • Complained about connectivity issues
  • Observed a downtick in professionalism from their providers
  • Worried about how much the experience would ultimately cost them

The above remarks should suggest a few ways organizations might approach tweaking (or developing) their own telehealth programs.

  • Start with making appointments easy to access, on an intuitive platform.
  • Next, ensure fees and pricing are transparently defined.
  • Last, focus provider training on how to maintain the same standard of care in telehealth that they'd show during in-patient appointments — emphasizing especially active listening skills, empathy and demonstrative courtesy.

Taken together, these steps will go a long way toward assuring a positive virtual care experience for patients.

Is the telehealth boom going to last?

Someday, as inoculation numbers increase and caseloads decline, the COVID-19 pandemic will finally be behind us. And that's unquestionably a good thing. But it also raises a question: as the coronavirus goes away, will telehealth go with it?

On this point, consumer data is mixed. While many patients appear to have enjoyed their telehealth experience, NRC Health research has found that only 27 percent of those who used telehealth in 2020 intend to make it a fixture of their future care. This suggests that the high rate of telehealth utilization may not persist in a post-COVID world. That said, the 27 percent figure is still a substantial proportion of the healthcare-consumer population. It may, therefore, continue to play an ancillary or supporting role in existing clinical flows.

Healthcare organizations certainly seem to think so. For instance, UCLA is currently developing all-new protocols for virtual triage; the pandemic-related expansion of telepsychiatry services is very likely to endure; and some specialty hospitals are exploring using mixed modalities, both in-person and via telehealth, for pain management. These are just a few of the forms that post-COVID telehealth may take. It's true that telehealth may never be the primary — or even the preferred — modality for most patients. But given its convenience and ease, broader deployment of telehealth is likely here to stay.

A fuller view of the trends

Telehealth was a defining trend of 2020, and it will undoubtedly leave an important mark on the future of care. It is, however, far from the only consumer trend healthcare leaders should consider. NRC Health's 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report not only explores the telehealth issue in greater depth, but also apprises leaders of the developing trends they'll need to understand in order to steer their organizations through healthcare's consumerist future.

For a wealth of insights gleaned from healthcare's largest consumer datasets, access the full report here


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