Telehealth Finds its Legs: The post-pandemic future of virtual care

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of telehealth. The data proves it. Now what?

During the first four months of the pandemic, patients used telehealth for nearly one-quarter (23.6 percent) of all healthcare interactions. As of March 2021, 61 percent of Americans say they’ve tried telehealth and the vast majority (86+ percent) were extremely or moderately satisfied with their visit.

As providers reopen, the telehealth wave shows little sign of slowing down. A Mercer Marsh Benefits survey found 80 percent plan to use telehealth “the same or more than in the pandemic.” Pre-pandemic 56 percent of patients “did not believe it was possible to receive the same level of care through telehealth compared to in-person appointments.” Today, nearly 80 percent believe it is possible to receive quality care in a telehealth appointment.

With this wave of virtual care acceptance, health plans view telehealth as a powerful way to reduce costs while improving member access and outcomes.

Paving the Way to Telehealth

Blue Shield of California is a vocal proponent of telehealth. In doing so, they are asking critical questions, such as:

  • What does virtual care by choice look like?
  • How should providers be reimbursed for telehealth visits?
  • What should the member copay be?

Blue Shield of California also is exploring the optimal uses cases for telehealth including mental health care, rural health visits, specialty care for kidney disease patients, and treatment for other types of chronic illness. As Heather Blanchard, senior director of program and project management of medical care programs for Blue Shield of California noted, “We are working to offer more cost-effective options to segments of the market, giving members the choice of a virtual plan instead of a brick-and-mortar one.” 

Health plans know the road to telehealth adoption will present challenges. That’s why they’re investing time and resources into telehealth programs optimization. In a discussion last year, NextHealth Technologies board member Eric Grossman shared his six key takeaways to drive telehealth effectiveness with Geneia President and CEO Heather Staples Lavoie. His roadmap for telehealth advancement by health plans is truer than ever.

By the Numbers Opportunities for Telehealth

The NextHealth team has been working in the telehealth arena for years. The insights we’ve amassed have helped health plans steer their telehealth outreach and adoption strategies. Our analysis of current telehealth utilization showed there were initial significant opportunities for savings including promoting telehealth for behavioral health, diabetes care, and as an alternative to the emergency department. Redirecting members who have used urgent or emergent care unnecessarily to virtual telehealth services will result in the deepest member savings. The chart below outlines additional trends fueling the drive to more telehealth services.

The Future of Telehealth

Telehealth is here to stay. Members need it. Providers need it. Health plans need it. The entire healthcare ecosystem needs telehealth. That said, each member population, each region, each line of business, will present telehealth opportunities and challenges. The health plans that invest now to understand the telehealth needs of their member population and hold a long-term view of telehealth viability, will be the ones who experience healthier members and lower costs.

I wish you all the best with your telehealth efforts.

Peter Everett, is the CEO of NextHealth Technologies.

Click here to find out how more and more health plans are using NextHealth Technologies to advance their telehealth programs.

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