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How COVID-19 accelerated the push toward telehealth

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth has rapidly evolved from a nice-to-have into a necessity. Suddenly, in-person care was only available to people with urgent or critical care needs. But telehealth made it possible for countless others to access care while dramatically minimizing exposure to the coronavirus. As awareness and adoption have grown, attitudes and perceptions have changed — and telehealth is finally having its moment.

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Before the pandemic, telehealth was available — but underutilized

While telehealth is most often associated with video visits, it also includes things like phone calls and emails between doctors and patients. Telehealth has been around for years, but utilization had always been low. In 2019, less than 10% of consumers had a telehealth visit within the past year.1 This is partly due to a general lack of awareness — while 72% of large employers offer telehealth benefits, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans think telehealth options are available to them.2 Many people also have doubts about quality of care. In one survey, nearly half of respondents said they thought telehealth care would be inferior to care delivered in person.3

Many employees don’t know they can access telehealth. 72% of large employers offer telehealth benefits, but 82% of employees don’t think they have telehealth benefits.

 

How COVID-19 created a telehealth surge

Because of COVID-19 and the need to limit in-person appointments while maintaining access to care, telehealth has gone mainstream. Now, 48% of doctors are seeing patients virtually, compared to just 18% in 2018.4 And 86% of employers are actively promoting their telehealth benefits in response to the pandemic.5

With telehealth on everybody’s radar, nearly 3 in 4 people say they’ll consider using it if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.6 And 2 in 3 say the pandemic has increased their overall willingness to try virtual care.7 They’re also happy with the care they’re getting — of the patients who had their first virtual care experience during the pandemic, 88% would use it again.8

Rapid adoption in response to COVID-19: Before COVID-19, 18% of doctors delivered virtual care. After COVID-19, 48% of doctors are delivering virtual care.

Consider this: Clinicians with telehealth experience were better prepared to meet this challenge

When the pandemic hit, many doctors and health care systems were scrambling to figure out how to deliver care remotely so they could minimize exposure without stopping care completely. So, on top of responding to the pandemic from a clinical standpoint, they were busy navigating telehealth for the first time — including:
Implementing new technology, training their care teams to deliver virtual care, and working out reimbursement issues.
Dealing with administrative challenges like these during a public health crisis is not ideal. At Kaiser Permanente, we were able to leverage our existing telehealth capabilities — and scale them up immediately to meet the surge in demand. Many of our doctors were already equipped to deliver care via telehealth — and one month into the lockdown, about 80% of our visits were happening virtually.9 And while these numbers will likely change as facilities reopen and more people start to seek in-person care, it does show that we were able to quickly expand our reach when members needed it the most.

2 in 3 employees say the pandemic has increased their willingness to try telehealth care.

 

Why connecting telehealth with total health is so essential

Telehealth works best in an integrated, connected system. But in many cases, it’s delivered by separate third-party providers who can only treat simple, one-time health care needs. Within a connected system, telehealth can do much more. Patients can access the care they know and trust — whether they need care because they’re sick, or routine care to help them stay healthy.

Improved continuity of care
Third-party telehealth requires the patient to initiate every encounter — and doctors only have the information provided by the patient, in the moment. In a connected system, telehealth is part of the overall health care experience. Outreach and reminders about preventive care services can continue. The same teams can provide care for the same patients — and access and update their medical records. And patients can experience the same high-quality care they’d get in person.

Better chronic conditions management
Employees with chronic conditions are at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 — and putting care on hold could put them in even greater danger. However, an April 2020 report showed that about half of patients with a chronic condition are worried about visiting their doctor for a non-coronavirus health care need.10 Ten percent of that group said they were so concerned they would forego care altogether.11 Care via telehealth is the obvious solution — and in a connected system, they can get care from doctors who know their health histories, risk factors, and treatment plans.

Telehealth is essential for patients with chronic conditions. 53% are too afraid to visit their doctor in person due to COVID-19.

More access to mental health care
While third-party telehealth providers only deal with the immediate situation at hand, doctors working in an integrated system can screen for depression in primary care and other settings. Whether it’s in person or via telehealth, addressing mental health across the care continuum makes it possible to reach people with mental health care needs sooner — before they seek help on their own. With 8 in 10 employees citing stigma as the reason they don’t seek care, that’s a valuable advantage.12 And because of the rapid changes brought on by COVID-19, many people have been under tremendous stress. There has been a huge surge in demand for mental health care that telehealth can help meet.

Telehealth is at a tipping point

As more people engage with telehealth care, innovation will naturally follow. We expect to see technical limitations diminish as capabilities expand. Remote diagnostics will evolve to enable more comprehensive remote exams. Remote monitoring technologies will empower care teams to react more quickly to changes in a patient’s status. Necessity is the mother of invention — and new and better ways to deliver virtual care are on the horizon.

Post-pandemic, more employees will turn to telehealth first
Currently, physical distancing is one of the best weapons we have against the spread of COVID-19. And some physical distancing measures may need to be in place long-term. As the situation continues to evolve, it’s important to recognize and celebrate the role telehealth has played in protecting patients and care teams — and ultimately helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus in our communities. While it could never replace in-person care altogether, telehealth will remain an essential method of care delivery going forward — and help shape the future of health care.

Learn more about telehealth at Kaiser Permanente >

About our expert

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Ed Lee, MD, MPH

Ed Lee, MD, MPH attended medical school at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts where he received his medical degree and master’s degree in public health and completed his residency training in internal medicine at UC Davis. He joined The Permanente Medical Group (TPMG) in 2004 where he has been fortunate to blend two of his passions — medicine and technology — together in his work. He now serves as the associate executive director overseeing technology for Northern California’s Permanente Medical Group as well as the executive vice president and chief information officer for The Permanente Federation.

 

  • 1

    Heather Landi, “Only 1 in 10 Patients Use Telehealth as Lack of Awareness Hinders Adoption, J.D. Power Survey Finds,” Fierce Healthcare, July 31, 2019.

  • 2

    Kathryn Mayer, “HRE’s Number Of The Day: Telehealth Misconceptions,” Human Resource Executive, April 13, 2020.

  • 3

    See note 1.

  • 4

    “Survey: Physician Practice Patterns Changing As A Result Of COVID-19,” Merritt Hawkins press release, April 22, 2020.

  • 5

    Matthew Gavidia, Virtual Care Essential Among Employers, Healthcare Providers in Protecting Health, Well-Being,” American Journal of Managed Care, April 13, 2020.

  • 6

    Eric Wicklund, “Coronavirus Gives People a Reason to Use Telehealth, But Doubts Remain,” mHealthIntelligence, April 6, 2020.

  • 7

    See note 6.

  • 8

    Sara Heath, “How Coronavirus Is Changing the Face of Healthcare Consumerism,” PatientEngagementHIT, April 27, 2020.

  • 9

    Kaiser Permanente internal data as of April 30, 2020.

  • 10

    Sara Heath, “How Is Coronavirus Affecting Chronic Disease Management Care?” PatientEngagementHIT, April 20, 2020.

  • 11

    See note 10.

  • 12

    “StigmaFree Company,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.org, accessed June 12, 2020.