Accessibility, cost savings and technological capabilities propelled telehealth into the spotlight due to COVID-19 and ushered in a new landscape for healthcare. Today, virtual health is no longer an add-on, but a key service.

Although virtual care — or telehealth — has been offered for some time, the adoption and use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic was incredibly high. A 2020 consumer survey found the pandemic doubled the number of people who have used telehealth, from 39.4 percent pre-COVID-19 to 79.5 percent post-quarantine.

It’s undeniable that trends in healthcare have permanently shifted towards telehealth becoming a key aspect of care. James Roxburgh, CEO of Banner Telehealth, says Banner’s offerings cover the continuum of care — ambulatory, clinic and acute settings — which have been instrumental in its delivery of care during COVID-19.

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“We’ve implemented a strong response to COVID-19 in an ambulatory setting,” Roxburgh says. “We’ve had over 97,000 ambulatory visits in nine months in 2020, and in the acute setting, we provided 9,800 visits in 2020. We created the foundation in 2020 for Banner Telehealth, so whether it’s providing care in or outside a Banner facility, it’s a matter of connecting the dots and it’s a very simple process, which is what I call telehealth 2.0 — we want to take our programs to the next level.”

Bill Goodwin, CEO of MeMD, says COVID-19 accelerated the already existing elements of virtual care and put them immediately on the forefront. “The future of telehealth is great because people want care delivered in the way they want it and they want to do a lot of it virtually,” he says.

In addition, Goodwin says virtual care will help alleviate an predicted shortage of 55,000 primary care doctors in the U.S. by 2030, which means people could be waiting four or five weeks to see a primary care doctor if they’re not an established patient. With a virtual visit, Goodwin says, people can get the care they need much faster.

The pandemic’s silver lining

Although more people have learned about virtual care options and have seen the benefits — from convenience to cost efficiency — the rapid adoption of telemedicine could have taken much longer if not for the strain COVID-19 put on the healthcare system.

“Patients historically have been hesitant to schedule telehealth appointments,” says Khalid Al-Maskari, CEO of HiMS (Health Information Management Systems), which provides integrated artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled electronic health record solutions. “Prior to COVID-19, telehealth was perceived as being a lesser form of healthcare. But new tools, apps and services are connecting patients to their providers in a way that’s easier and faster than ever before. If COVID-19 didn’t happen, telehealth would still be seen as a fringe service rather than a key pillar of care.”

Justin Bayless, CEO of Bayless Integrated Healthcare, an integrated primary care and behavioral health practice, says by the end of April 2020, Bayless saw adoption from both patients and providers and tremendous growth in their virtual service delivery, and provider and patient satisfaction increased. “We describe virtual care as a full ecosystem of services across the spectrum of what Bayless offers in an integrated approach,” he says.

A May 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company showed 76 percent of respondents were highly or moderately likely to use telehealth going forward, and 74 percent of users reported high satisfaction.

“Our technology is getting more sophisticated and growing exponentially,” Bayless says. “We’re going to have a system that is going to drive off of technology first in the not too distant future, and the pandemic has pushed that adoption forward.”

Dr. Kishlay Anand, founder and CEO of Akos, a Phoenix-based telemedicine company that provides services for businesses and patients, says telehealth is popularizing a hybrid approach to telehealth and in-person care. “In the future, I think people’s receptiveness to telehealth will continue to increase. Virtual care was seen as less-desirable before COVID-19, but now it’s a key element of modern healthcare,” Dr. Anand says. “The pandemic showed patients and physicians that telehealth was not only viable, but that it was also a convenient and more affordable option. It broke down barriers to care access that in-person healthcare was unable to address.”

Telehealth benefits employers and employees

More employers are seeing the tremendous cost savings and efficiency of including virtual health offerings in their insurance plans.

“Employers are seeing the need to have an increased focus on employees’ physical well-being and mental well-being,” Goodwin says. “So when a company looks at health and wellness, they’re looking at the cost and employee engagement. By providing mental and physical care virtually, they can control costs more and they can drive employee engagement, so you’ll see more employers adopt virtual strategies as part of their overall benefit plan.”

The 2021 Large Employers’ Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey revealed more than half of all respondents planned to implement more virtual care solutions in 2021, while 80 percent believe telehealth will significantly impact care delivery in the future — up from 64 percent in 2019.

“It’s becoming increasingly common for businesses to add telehealth to their existing plans due to its simplicity and low cost,” says Dr. Anand. “As the world transitions to virtual care, businesses that quickly adopt telehealth will be ahead of the curve, as more employees begin to expect this service.”

“The main takeaway for businesses is that telehealth has now shifted from an ‘add-on’ form of care to a core function of health plans,” says Al-Maskari. “It’s becoming increasingly less optional for businesses to exclude telehealth services from their benefits offerings.”

This shift is a positive direction for the healthcare industry, not only for employees or individuals who have more access to quality care that’s more convenient, but also for businesses, who can save money by providing telehealth options.

“Health insurance, for the most part, has become unaffordable for most businesses in America, and if it is affordable, it’s only for the high-wage earners in their businesses,” says Dr. David Berg, president and co-founder of Redirect Health, an affordable business, individual and family plan insurance provider. “The cost of healthcare insurance is the biggest reason why so many people don’t have access to it. Even if they have insurance, they can’t afford to take time off work, or afford the co-pays, out-of-pocket cost or other costs. With telehealth, an employer’s health plan is less expensive, so the cost per person can go down dramatically with the use of the appropriate technology and workflows to match with it.”

In addition, mental health has become a larger aspect of virtual care. Given the unprecedented events in 2020, more people than ever were struggling with mental conditions. “The need out there is so much greater,” Dr. Berg says. “I think employers that don’t offer mental health options in their health plan are at a huge disadvantage versus the ones who do. Telehealth allows people to communicate with mental health professionals at a lower cost, so it does not become the barrier to treatment.”

Technology and AI revolutionize capabilities

The advancement of technology has unlocked limitless potential for the future of telehealth. Goodwin says AI provides patients with a preferred way to consume care at their convenience. “AI won’t make the decision on care, AI will augment what the provider does and help them be more effective.”

A challenge that comes with this advanced technology is data silos, which Dr. Anand says AI is finally solving. “AI makes it possible to pull data from multiple sources and put it all in one place, making better patient care possible. Having data across several locations makes it harder for physicians to provide quality care because they don’t have access to the patient’s full diagnostic report … If a provider can see that a patient was diagnosed with X in the past, that provider will then know to look out for Y, or to not prescribe Z.”

Al-Maskari says AI is a key reason why large-scale telehealth deployment was possible in such a compressed time frame at the onset of COVID-19. “Not only has COVID-19 launched telehealth to the forefront of care, but it also shifted the healthcare market to be less transactional and more proactive. To promote this proactive care experience, AI is essential for automating administrative functions, checking in with patients and prioritizing workflow.

“With AI taking care of the day-to-day operations, providers can see more patients virtually,” Al-Maskari says. “This allows for physicians and staff to focus on their patients rather than data aggregation. The easiest way to think about the AI shift is as a partnership: to partner with thousands of patients at once, you need smarter, more automated systems. This model allows patients to access more comprehensive information about their health than they ever had access to before.”

Looking forward in 2021

Roxburgh says telehealth will continue to evolve in 2021 towards a value-based system. “It will look at the patient as a whole throughout the continuum of care so that we look at maximizing their care in a way that looks to improve efficiency of care in a value-based world.”

Al-Maskari says mobile healthcare is also changing the healthcare delivery model. “Doctors are more commonly communicating both internally with clinical staff and externally with patients via text message, and this is something the healthcare industry will see more of as we progress through 2021.”

As healthcare continues to evolve and offer more virtual healthcare options, Bayless says it’s giving people access to care they wouldn’t otherwise have. “I think it’s an equalizer,” he says. “For example, Bayless serves many low-income communities in Arizona and we know how difficult it is for them to make it to a doctor’s appointment. Poverty brings stressors and barriers and getting to an appointment may not be as important as other things.

“Now, people can use their cell phone and be able to get the help they need, specifically mental help,” Bayless says. “I’m excited and positive about what the future can bring for more people to access care, especially the things that are most important for their overall health, which starts with primary care and mental health services.”