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How COVID-19 Reveals a Telehealth Imperative

There are countless lessons to be learned from the Coronavirus outbreak and its many attendant repercussions, but one of the starkest among them is the necessity of telehealth as part of a fully-functional healthcare system.

As we enter the fifth week of physical distancing, businesses across the board are innovating to stay relevant in a new reality where almost all of our activities are conducted online. More than any other sector, the pandemic has put a tremendous burden on healthcare. It has quickly become clear that the system can’t withstand the strain of a dramatic influx of COVID-19 cases without a strong assist from telehealth.

The barriers that have hampered telehealth initiatives in the past

The potential of telemedecine to transform healthcare systems for the better, as well as its ability to democratize access to medical care is well-established, however implementation of telehealth systems has not always been a top priority for providers. Lack of internal support coupled with general institutional inertia and limited availability of funds have often put telemedecine on the back burner. Privacy concerns about storing our most sensitive personal data online have also been a factor.

It’s remarkable, though, how fast things can change during a time of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a clear case for how essential telemedecine is to slowing the spread of the virus and ensuring patients have access to quality care. Almost overnight the crisis has forced providers to pivot from completely face-to-face practices to hybrid online-offline systems with the ability to operate remotely just as efficiently as in person. It has become glaringly apparently that telehealth alternatives are essential, particularly in the current moment.

COVID-19 proves the case for telehealth

COVID-19 has created a dramatic increase in demand for medical care at a time when we are all trying to slow the spread of the virus by staying home and maintaining physical distance. Crowded waiting rooms in hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices are to be expected as the number of cases rises, but this is a nightmare scenario in terms of the spread of the virus.

The availability of telehealth alternatives to in-person hospital and clinic visits is key to avoiding this type of congregation in waiting rooms. Online appointments can reduce strain on the system by keeping patients who aren’t seriously ill from making a visit to the clinic or hospital. Electronic scheduling and prescribing reduce the number of office visits and phone calls, freeing up physician resources for the most urgent cases.

Greater investment in telehealth infrastructure

Telehealth is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of products and services, from the most basic online appointment scheduling platforms to wearable devices, video appointments, and secure messaging. The pandemic has shown us that the most important initiatives, at least in the short-term, include secure video appointments, secure messaging systems, online appointment scheduling systems, online prescribing, and online billing and payment systems.

Recently, we worked with Fruit Street to launch CovidMD. CovidMD is a risk assessment, triage, and telemedicine platform created to keep users informed during the COVID-19 (AKA “Coronavirus”) pandemic. It works by allowing users to take a 1-minute online assessment to determine their risk, and then receive personalized medical advice or connect with a doctor via video chat. We were able to turn actualize this project in under four weeks.

And while traditionally the funds to make telehealth systems a reality has always been a factor limiting adoption, there is some good news on that front. As part of the CARES act passed by Congress to offer relief to families and businesses during the pandemic, $200 million was allocated to the FCC to enable the agency to fund implementation of, and improvements to telehealth infrastructure. According to the FCC, “The COVID-19 Telehealth Program will provide immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services until the program’s funds have been expended or the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.”

Takeaways

Though telehealth has long promised to bring better care and more efficient operation to our healthcare system, adoption has historically been sporadic at best. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare providers around the globe to rapidly ramp up their telehealth systems in order to continue to serve patients while slowing the spread of the virus. This pandemic, and the government’s response to it, are spurring investment in telehealth infrastructure across the country and around the world. If you’re in a position to explore telemedicine adoption, we’d love to help guide you.

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