At America's Health Insurance Plans conference in June, experts and officials discussed telehealth in the coming time. The COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the adoption of telehealth thanks to social distancing and the fear contracting the coronavirus. Before the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth was used mainly for behavioral and urgent care, with a focus in rural and underserved areas.
Adoption had increased exponentially since March when the Trump administration temporarily rolled back myriad restrictions to telehealth access, including expanding fee-for-service, Medicare coverage, waiving geographic limits, and authorizing reimbursement for audio-only visits. Despite that, many regulations are temporary and might last only till the end of the public health emergency; this trend is not going to disappear. The fact is hospitals and doctor's offices have invested in the new tech, and customers started getting used to virtual care.
The number of fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services alone expanded more than 11,718% between early March and mid-April, for example. Commercial payers are also reporting significant (albeit less dramatic) growth. Experts forecast about 20% of all forecasted Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial outpatient, office, and home healthcare spending for 2020 could be digitized. They also believe that telehealth will land somewhere in between pre-pandemic and current use.
Some challenges need to be passed, such as the flexibility of community, specific regulations, and insurance companies' plans. Take a closer look at insurers, and we don't know whether they weave telemedicine into their strategies moving forward. Telemedicine advocates hope health plans will discount telehealth to nudge patients toward virtual-first care and implement it for a wide variety of use cases like triage, urgent care, behavioral health, post-surgical consultations, chronic care management and more. Major commercial payers, fresh off temporarily waiving patient some cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing and treatment and upping reimbursement for virtual care, seem open to the idea. The pandemic also significantly increases the unemployment rate, following by people losing their insurance, which means they likely lose access to virtual care.
It's also vital to ensure telehealth expansion applies to all Americans and doesn't aggravate existing disparities, such as access to broadband. More research also needs to be done on the quality of virtual care services, physicians and payers say. But pickle or not, the pandemic has kicked off a once-in-a-lifetime shift in healthcare delivery, and experts say telehealth is here to stay. It would be wise if enterprises in the healthcare industry get ready for this inevitable trend.