Created by: Shayan Bagheban

The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the shortcomings of a bloated healthcare system that has long been insufficient when it comes to meeting the needs of patients. A sluggish government response to the coronavirus outbreak in conjunction with PPE shortages and a chronic lack of funding in the public health sector have resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans to date[1]. Millions more have applied for unemployment since March after having lost their jobs and subsequently, their health insurance[2]. The full extent of the devastation and suffering caused by COVID-19 is incomprehensible when you take into account the impact it’s had on a social, economic and individual level. 

Perhaps the only silver lining of this otherwise somber situation is the forced acceleration of digital reform in the healthcare industry and, in particular, the adoption of telehealth services. The COVID-19 pandemic compelled the healthcare industry to undergo the equivalent of a decade worth of growth in a mere matter of weeks, just to be able to keep up with the sudden and exponential increase in demand for virtual healthcare accessibility.

According to the Oxford english dictionary, telehealth (or telemedicine) can be broadly defined as the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology.[3] In the current landscape, however, the term has grown to encompass a wide array of healthcare provisions that can be administered from a geographical distance, including patient portals and remote patient monitoring devices. In 2019, prior to the outbreak of novel coronavirus, only 11% of U.S. consumers were using telehealth services[4]. In less than a year, that number has skyrocketed to 46% as more and more patients turn to telehealth as a favorable alternative to forced appointment cancellations[4]. Having rapidly scaled their services to meet the new demand, some healthcare providers are now seeing more than 50 times the number of patients through telehealth visits than they were before[4]

Since the very beginning of this pandemic, telehealth has proven to be a sustainable and effective tool in regards to the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. According to a systematic review of the role of telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak, the implementation of telehealth has markedly improved the provision of health services[5]. By bridging the gap between patients, doctors and healthcare providers, telehealth allows symptomatic patients to virtually communicate with physicians from the comfort of their homes, therefore helping to reduce the transmission of the virus. Doing so increases the effectiveness of social distancing measures and helps medical facilities manage the risk of disease progression in addition to mitigating wait times. This in turn provides a degree of protection for medical staff and limits their exposure to COVID-19 by a considerable amount. 

The same can be said for patients with certain chronic or underlying health conditions that may increase their risk of complications from the coronavirus. With the convenience and accessibility of telehealth, these patients can largely avoid in-person visits and minimize their risk of contracting the virus. In addition, individuals with conditions that require daily monitoring can schedule appointments more promptly and receive the appropriate recommendations the moment that a change in their clinical state is detected. This means that patients have consistent access to healthcare without having to worry about the impending threat of COVID-19 or the issue of transportation, thus increasing the likelihood that an individual will seek care when confronted with an ailment. Patients are able to receive the care they deserve without further endangering their lives or the lives of medical professionals, all while simultaneously increasing revenue for healthcare providers.

The recent widespread adoption and amelioration of telehealth services has proven that telemedicine is here to stay, and that its utility extends far beyond the scope of the coronavirus pandemic. For starters, telehealth makes healthcare much more accessible to patients living in rural communities, allowing individuals to receive the care they need regardless of geographical isolation[6]. Telehealth is even more accessible from a monetary perspective, as many healthcare providers have reduced the copay cost associated with telehealth appointments relative to the cost of an in-person visit[7]. In a similar vein, telehealth is a convenient and viable alternative for patients with limited mobility, time or ability to commute. Access to telehealth also facilitates higher levels of patient engagement and self-management of healthcare. By replacing a percentage of in-person treatments with virtual care services and by making healthcare accessible to a wider range of patients during an unprecedented national health emergency, telehealth is optimizing efficiency in an industry that is notorious for falling behind the curve. 

COVID-19 has catalyzed a transition towards telehealth, and now the onus is on healthcare executives and administrators to refine and incentivize telemedicine platforms. By implementing telehealth services, healthcare providers are actively working towards reducing the health disparities afflicting patients with limited access to proper care, in addition to promoting patient engagement, patient education and an overall increase in efficiency. Likewise, virtual appointments reduce the risk of needless exposure to COVID-19 for both patients and physicians, effectively allowing standard visits to continue while preventing the possibility of viral transmission. A disaster of this magnitude poses its own set of unique challenges, especially in regards to ensuring the continued delivery of quality, accessible healthcare. It’s vital that we use this pandemic as an opportunity to look ahead towards a future that has the needs of the modern patient in mind, instead of reverting back to our pre-COVID ‘normal’ that left us exceedingly unprepared in the face of the coronavirus.