COVID-19 spotlights telehealth opportunities, challenges: 3 experts weigh in

More Americans are using telehealth services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid growth of these services earlier this year highlighted several opportunities and challenges for expanding telehealth in the future. 

The effect of COVID-19 on telemedicine and reimbursement for those services was one of the topics experts discussed during a session at the Becker's Healthcare Payer Issues Virtual Summit on Aug. 3. The panel included Kelly Cavin, RN, vice president of social determinants of health at Change Healthcare, Rodrigo Cerdá, MD, vice president of clinical care transformation at Independence Blue Cross and Eric Hoag, vice president of provider relations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. 

Here's an excerpt from the conversation, edited for clarity. To view the full session on-demand, click here

Question: What telemedicine challenges and opportunities have been spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Dr. Rodrigo Cerdá: Independence was an early adopter of telemedicine on this, especially in the setting of the pandemic. From March, we really expanded the number of services that could be rendered by audio visual or audio, and now we've extended most of our business lines through the end of the year. There's been a really significant uptick — we were just looking at some of those statistics and almost 60 percent of primary care physician and behavioral health visits were done through telemedicine in the period of March to May. We're submitting a manuscript where we found that the average weekly virtual visits increased from 300 a week to almost 50,000 a week after social distancing measures were put in place. So there are a ton of opportunities associated with that.

The fact that people are being forced to try telemedicine, people who may not have ever thought of themselves as somebody who would use it, both on the provider side and the member side, means that there are actually a lot of people who are trying it and liking it.

Kelly Cavin: We've identified some disparities as we've moved into COVID-19, and the access to broadband hardware for telemedicine is one of those things. I think, as a society, we need to look at how we better enable individuals to have access to these types of things going forward, especially if we're moving to deliver care in a different way. And so, in a planning way, maybe start equipping people with monitoring tools as well as figuring out ways to make sure people have access to Wi-Fi hardware and that type of thing.

From an opportunity standpoint, I think this has really shone a light on our need to reevaluate the delivery model that we have today and how we could make it better and be able to adjust to the swings and different crises, whether it be a pandemic like COVID, or the changes in seasonal flu that impacts us today. 

Eric Hoag: It's like, how do we not revert back to the bricks and mortar that are still there? I think we've seen a huge uptake on the virtual care, but we're hearing from providers, "Well you need to pay the same." And so where we need to be careful, I think, is where we revert back to providers wanting to fill bricks and mortar that they're still paying for, from a rent basis, and us reverting to saying, "Well, it's virtual. It should be cheaper immediately." We need to come up with a short-, medium-, and long-term approach to our policies.

Regarding health equity, this provides a very unique opportunity to actually provide new and different access. We have to make sure the tools and capabilities are available to provide that access.

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