Telehealth has been around for at least a few decades, but its’ steady growth trajectory was injected with rocket fuel a year ago when the pandemic erupted. Most every medical provider was thrust into embracing telehealth services, and for many, a rather uncomfortable, but necessary pivot to serve patients. Going forward, one key question to address will be if the outcomes of telehealth are at least as effective as in-person visits.
Technology and Reimbursement Concerns of Telehealth
For telehealth to become deeply rooted in the long-term medical-delivery process, a few important barriers will need to be addressed. Making the telehealth technical systems easy to use – for both physicians and patients – will require additional tweaks to simplify the physician workflow process and patient acceptance. Additionally, physicians desire to have a more-intimate rapport with patients, such as reading body language, listening to breath sounds while providing an actual physical examination.
But the elephant in the room regarding the growth of telehealth is simply this: the complicated challenges of reimbursements from payers – a key component that could determine long-term adoption. State telehealth commercial payer laws vary. For Iowa, the legislature is considering a payment parity bill that would treat telehealth reimbursement no differently than in-person care (HF294).
Telehealth Outcomes – What is Known Today
Is the quality-of-care provided remotely at least comparable to in-person care? Are patients satisfied with telehealth? There are some studies, all from the pre-pandemic period, that evaluated patient outcomes between telehealth and in-person visits. Rest assured, new pandemic data on telehealth will eventually emerge to help connect the dots on satisfaction, safety and outcomes.
For now, pre-pandemic outcome results appear to be tepidly encouraging. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) provided funding to the Pacific Northwest Evidence-based Practice Center to produce two reports on telehealth. Each report provides helpful insights on how telehealth can positively impact appropriate and safe care.
STUDY #1: Telehealth: Mapping the Evidence for Patient Outcomes from Systematic Reviews (2016): This report included over 950 studies of telehealth based on data from 58 systematic reviews published between 2007 and 2015. High-level findings show that telehealth is beneficial for specific uses and patient populations. In fact, “There is a large volume of research reporting that clinical outcomes with telehealth are as good as or better than usual care and that telehealth improves intermediate outcomes and (patient) satisfaction.” Benefit evidence was concentrated in specific uses of telehealth services for:
- Remote, home monitoring for patients with chronic conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure
- Communicating and counseling patients with chronic conditions
- Providing psychotherapy as part of behavioral health
Other Resources for Telehealth Outcomes
A few other 2018 studies also provide insight on telehealth care:
- Impact of Telemedicine on Mortality, Length of Stay, and Cost Among Patients in Progressive Care Units: Experience From a Large Healthcare System (2018) – Finding: Telemedicine intervention decreased overall mortality and length of stay within progressive care units without substantial cost incurrences.
- Effect of the School-Based Telemedicine Enhanced Asthma Management Program on Asthma Morbidity (2018) – Telemedicine intervention significantly improved symptoms and reduced healthcare utilization among urban children with persistent asthma.
- Telemedicine in the Mangement of Type 1 Diabetes (2018) – Finding: “Specialty diabetes care delivered via telemedicine was safe and was associated with time savings, cost savings, high appointment adherence rates, and high patient satisfaction. Our findings support growing evidence that telemedicine is an effective alternative method of health care delivery.”
- Telemedicine and Mobile Health Technology are Effective in the Management of Digestive Diseases: A Systematic Review (2018) – Finding: “Telemedicine and mobile health technology may be effective in managing disease activity and improving quality of life in digestive diseases.”
What Can Be Learned?
Overall, these pre-pandemic reports suggest that when patients and clinicians had a choice or when telehealth addressed an access issue, benefits of telehealth occurred. Further, this research found evidence that telehealth might benefit groups of patients during the pandemic when expanding critical care, help speed emergency care decisions, and reduce exposure to infection when replacing face-to-face care. But AHRQ issued an evidence summary report in April 2019 cautioning that more rigorous research will be needed to fully comprehend the effectiveness of telehealth consultations.
The rapid expansion of telehealth during the pandemic may provide better opportunities to learn whether telehealth is an appropriate application to use in given medical situations. Measuring the most appropriate outcomes will be extremely important for researchers to assess and analyze.
Most people agree that telehealth is here to stay. Two important influencers on telehealth growth will likely include documented health outcomes and third-party reimbursement levels. Telehealth usage will not remain at the elevated levels that COVID-19 required, but it will reach a more reasonable level and then grow where it makes most sense. Applying telehealth wisely will be important to research goals coming from the pandemic experience. New research with rigorous and detailed telehealth models will be needed to help answer these questions, and the answers may very well depend on what type of care is given under various specialties of care.
To be sure, the pandemic will reveal important findings that will determine how telehealth will expand in the future.
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