Is Telehealth The Future Of Medicine?

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Patient in video call with doctor
Virtual doctors' visits are cost-effective and convenient. Now that telehealth is widespread due to COVID-19, is it here to stay?

"Having two toddlers, going into a doctor's visit is usually very time consuming," says 35-year-old patient Heather Updegraff.

For Updegraff, a trip to the doctor has so many moving parts. But this time, a virtual doctor's visit makes it convenient.  "Both my kids are eating breakfast and I was able to talk to the doctor," she says. 

With shelter-in-place orders in most states, there has been a rise in telehealth for non-emergencies — remote ways physicians can communicate with patients in real time through video and telephone calls or online correspondence.In a sense, the coronavirus is forcing this increase of telehealth. But long after this pandemic, will it stay and be part of the future of medicine?Telemedicine existed pre-coronavirus, but it was limited to mostly rural areas. Strict health insurance policies made reimbursements difficult for hospitals and clinics, and that hindered its expansion because of cost. Health care providers were also prohibited from seeing patients across state lines.

Mei Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, says: "Fast-forward to COVID-19: They've opened up a lot of those restrictions, they temporarily waive them."

For now, Medicare covers virtual visits. It expanded telehealth to urban areas, and increased healthcare providers. Recently, the Health and Human Services awarded $165 million to rural hospitals and part of that money will improve their telehealth. Mei Kwong is part of the Center for Connected Health Policy, a federally funded organization that looks at advancing telemedicine.

She says, "The other reason it's exploded is that providers are realizing this may be the only option that they have available for them to get services to patients who need them because they are sheltering in place."

"Ten and 15 years ago, we were talking about e-visits and virtual visits," says Dr. Grant Greenberg, the family medicine chair at the Lehigh Valley Health Network in eastern Pennsylvania. He says pre-coronavirus, less than 1% of patient care in his department was seen remotely. Now, 90% of patient care is telehealth. 

Telehealth isn't perfect: Internet and technological accessibility is a problem for some, and it won't replace face-to-face visits completely. But Greenberg predicts that virtual care is here to stay. 

"The world of the future is one that's much more convenient for the patient and respects the patient's time to the point where they have access to care in a way that works for them," says Greenberg.

Cat Sandoval, Newsy, Chicago.