Where telehealth stands after COVID-19

Telehealth exploded out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as the U.S. moves out of the COVID-19 era, hospital leaders told Becker's they are relying less on telehealth.

"I think the use of virtual care has contracted a little bit since the pandemic," Beth Kushner, DO, chief medical information officer at Irvine, Calif.-based Saint Joseph Health, told Becker's. "Providers and patients alike see the value and need for in-person care as well as virtual care."

Recent surveys also show that telehealth's grip on Americans is slipping. In April, Fair Health's Monthly Regional Telehealth tracker found that telehealth utilization slipped by 5.4 percent. 

Despite the post-COVID-19 slump, telehealth is still a more widely used option than before the pandemic. Prominent health systems, such as the Cleveland Clinic, are betting on virtual care's long-term staying power. The convenience of receiving care from one's home is still driving many patients to seek out telehealth options.

"We've seen significant declines in telehealth use as the pandemic has cooled off. It's still significantly higher than pre-pandemic, however," said Scott MacDonald, MD, CMIO at Sacramento, Calif.-based UC Davis Health. "Since we don't have any organizational efforts to push more patients into video visits, this is mostly demand-side driven. If the patient calls or messages us requesting an office visit, that's what we schedule."

For telehealth to stick around permanently, lawmakers need to hammer out regulations and rules for virtual care. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the "Telehealth Expansion Act of 2023," a bill that if signed into law would extend COVID-19 era telehealth flexibility and allow patients with health savings accounts and high deductible plans to permanently access telehealth. The Congressional Budget Office reported that telehealth expansion would cost $5 billion. 

Some hospital leaders are looking to Washington, D.C., to provide guidance on how telehealth care can be delivered as the country moves out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Unfortunately, since the emergency declaration ended, a confusing and inconsistent return of some of the prior restrictions have created a lot of uncertainty surrounding which services can be provided, by whom, and in what manner," said Jeff Hoffman, MD, CMIO at Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Children's.


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