Around the Globe

Telehealth in Our Post-Pandemic Future
Erin Anthony

t the rate telehealth is growing, it’s not surprising that medical and business professionals forecast it to become a standard service across all care settings. VirtualMed Staff President Jack Williams has predicted that this growth will be sustained for years to come, and telehealth will become easier to access for more people, generating confidence in the approach.

Telehealth’s accessibility is rapidly increasing, and patients are getting more and more comfortable with it. Doctors predict that when the pandemic ebbs away, healthcare will not go back to the traditional approach, which largely involved in-person care sessions. But as the community at large and medical institutions grow more accustomed to telehealth, what will it look like after the pandemic?

Telehealth companies are scaling up. According to The Wall Street Journal, the global telehealth market is expected to grow from $25.4 billion (US) in 2020 to $55.6 billion by 2025. These companies offer services that connect people to physicians and other medical professionals online, via calls or video conferences. These online sessions include medical consultations, health monitoring, and other non-emergency medical issues. Some companies offer general services, while others also provide more specialized healthcare services, like consultations with nutritionists. This surge in demand for telehealth services, both COVID-related and not, has helped to eliminate barriers to healthcare such as time, distance, and mobility.

Limitations and Tradeoffs

Although telehealth is beneficial, it has its limitations, especially when it comes to physical exams and long-term patient care that doctors need to conduct remotely. This makes telehealth evaluations heavily patient-assisted and aided by digital health devices, such as wearables and other monitoring devices that can measure heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, weight, among other metrics. For doctors skilled in the art of physical examination, such as University of Rochester Medical Center Professor of Medicine and Geriatrics Thomas Caprio, there are trade-offs in examining a patient virtually, such as not being able to conduct the examination as extensively as he could in-person. Even so, Caprio remains one of telehealth’s strongest supporters and suggests that instead of viewing telehealth as a total replacement to in-person care, it should rather be considered as a supplement to in-person care. In the future, he expects providers and patients to opt for a hybrid (mix) of these two approaches.

Big Data in Telehealth

After a devastating pandemic, compiling and analyzing statistics and devising preventive and predictive care models have become more important than ever. Big data analytics has demonstrated several positive and even life-saving benefits in healthcare, and has enabled healthcare services to become more cost-effective and patient care more personalized.

As hospitals and medical staff are embracing technology in more aspects of patient care, accurate, available, and clean data are essential. In fact, some nursing careers now focus on data analysis and management, overseen by nursing informatics specialists (NIS). These nurses could earn their undergraduate degree in nursing and then learn the information technology (IT) components on the job; on the other hand, they may also pursue continuing programs in IT or healthcare informatics. Data gathered by these professionals contribute to more efficient medical and administrative processes in hospital settings. These data can also be utilized to create more targeted telehealth care for certain communities, because big data can make understanding safety risks and creating care plans for specific demographics a simpler process.

Fraud Detection in Telehealth

Since telehealth is relatively new to both individual users and government agencies, it may be susceptible to fraudulent activities. One commonly used scheme is fraudsters recruiting registered US Medicare patients to visit physicians for illegitimate reasons, just to get prescribed medicine or medical devices for which Medicare pays. Recent headlines also revealed more large-scale frauds committed by company chains. One such chain has pleaded guilty to creating several durable medical equipment “fronts” (fraudulent shell organizations) which are then used in telehealth billing schemes and unlawful reimbursements.

As US government agencies such as the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), together with private groups such as the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) and the American Telemedicine Association, start to gain a better understanding of telehealth, new models that actively track and monitor telehealth service billing behaviors may be developed. Furthermore, anticipated improved data collection, coding, and telehealth laws are expected to maintain high quality of telehealth services while protecting both patients and physicians.

Remote Services Include Education

Remote consultations have been proven to boost access to care, especially for populations such as the elderly, people with reduced mobility, and patients who are geographically isolated and otherwise would find it difficult to reach healthcare professionals. One study has shown that remote preventative healthcare services have even improved health outcomes in patients with chronic heart disease.

This “remote benefit” also extends to healthcare education, which has simultaneously arisen side-by-side with remote healthcare. Remote learning has proven especially ideal for healthcare professionals already established in the field who are looking to advance or change their careers. Registered nurses can take online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs to train and prepare them for leadership roles. They can subsequently specialize in more focused nursing tracks like gerontology and public health, two nursing specializations currently in high demand. Because these programs are instructed online, nurses can finish courses in their own time and without having to miss work. Clearly, remote healthcare services and education benefit not just patients, but the workers who care for them as well.