Virtual care has the potential to address inequities, inconveniences and public health risks if access continues to grow and evolve, a PwC study finds.
Posted July 21st, 2020 | By Brian Eastwood
Data from the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that U.S. consumers made a massive shift to telehealth. What’s more, a majority of new adopters want to keep using it in the months ahead.
Five percent of Americans have used telehealth for the first time since the onset of COVID-19, according to a report from the PwC Health Research Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 consumers in early April.
Applied to the entire U.S. population, that equates to more than 16 million Americans, the consultancy estimates. Moreover, nearly 9 in 10 survey respondents said they would be willing to use telehealth again.
Data from other sources paints a similar picture:
- The nonprofit claims analysis group FAIR Health reported a dramatic increase in telehealth claims from private insurance — more than 4,300 percent from March 2019 to March 2020, and more than 8,300 percent from April 2019 to April 2020.
- Medicare claims for telehealth jumped 11,000 percent from early March 2020 to mid-April 2020, according to federal data.
- Forrester predicts that there will be more than 1 billion telehealth visits in the U.S. this year, even though only 24 percent of healthcare organizations had an existing virtual care program as of January.
As healthcare organizations begin to resume operations and provide both urgent and elective care, leaders need to prepare for a future where telehealth plays an increasingly important role.
Despite its quick and often successful growth, telehealth will face new challenges. A Commonwealth Fund analysis suggests that telehealth use started to plateau in May as hospitals reopened, although the service remains far more popular than before.
In addition, relaxed telehealth restrictions during the pandemic — such as interstate licensure, reimbursement rates and limits on which services were covered — may be put back in place when the national public health emergency is lifted.
However, findings from the PwC report indicate that consumer behavior amid the pandemic will impact healthcare organizations in four key ways — and telehealth is positioned to guide the response.
- Reduce gaps in care: Nearly 1 in 3 consumers plan to spend less on healthcare services as a result of COVID-19, primarily by skipping visits, PwC found. And more than 1 in 5 consumers plan to spend less on medications, either by skipping doses or not taking medications at all. These actions all have negative health impacts and lead to increased spending on high-acuity care. Virtual visit technology enables consumers to see physicians or nurses from the safety of their homes, while medication adherence tools help consumers stay on track with reminders and refills.
- Manage chronic conditions: Of new telehealth users during COVID-19, PwC found that more than two-thirds had chronic conditions. Another 12 percent used telehealth to address their mental health needs, which are closely linked to chronic medical conditions. This shows the value of telehealth and remote monitoring technology in providing consistent care for consumers who often visit the doctor’s office — and must miss work or secure childcare — for routine consultations or vital-sign readings.
- Address social determinants of health: Survey respondents said COVID-19 heightened the impact of the nonclinical factors that influence their well-being: mental health, isolation, nutrition, employment, finances, exercise and more. Increased access to care via telehealth, available in part because of looser regulations, can help to address some of these concerns — but health systems should be prepared to invest in outreach and even put technology directly in the hands of consumers.
- Share critical information: PwC found that the likelihood of social distancing increases with age: 95 percent of Americans 65 and older were practicing social distancing, compared with only 58 percent of those who are 18 to 24. Social distancing efforts also varied by ethnicity, according to the report. Although one’s employment, financial status and access to broadband internet all can impact social distancing, PwC suggested targeted electronic communications to different consumer segments — such as patient portal messages or app notifications — could help share important information to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.