By Jodi Helmer
Virtual visits with a doctor are not meant to replace all in-person care. But during the pandemic, connecting with a healthcare provider from home enables patients to address important medical needs while reducing their risk of contracting Covid-19.
By phone and email, apps and web browsers, an unprecedented number of adults have kept virtual appointments this year—even though the concept of telehealth has been around for some time.
AARP research showed that more than half of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 had heard of telehealth and telemedicine in April 2020. And a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that almost one-quarter of adults over 50 used a device with internet to talk to a healthcare provider during a two-week period in April.
“The spread of the coronavirus across our country has created a very stressful environment for all Americans and especially older people and those with underlying health conditions who are at heightened risk,” Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, said in Aggressive Steps Taken by AARP to Protect Older Americans During Coronavirus Outbreak, a letter to members published on AARP.org. “We pushed hard to ensure that Medicare covers telehealth visits so beneficiaries can consult with their doctors without leaving home.”
A 1925 cover of Science and Invention magazine depicted a patient receiving a medical diagnosis from their doctor over the radio—and 46 years earlier, an academic journal suggested that healthcare providers talk to their patients over a new invention, the telephone, to reduce unnecessary office visits.
Telehealth has come a long way since then, and the pandemic has made it more accessible than ever. One survey showed that doctors are seeing 50 to 175 times more patients via telehealth since the start of the pandemic.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, insurance companies have expanded access to telehealth services during the pandemic and reduced or eliminated copays to ensure beneficiaries have access to healthcare while following stay-at-home orders.
Congress, meanwhile, passed several bills to increase access for Medicare beneficiaries, including removing prior authorization requirements that required medical approval from Medicare before accessing services; lifting geographic restrictions so beneficiaries can access care from doctors nationwide; and eliminating the requirement that a beneficiary have a preexisting relationship with the provider.
The legislation also waived prescription refill limits and relaxed restrictions on home delivery of prescription medications.
These changes made by policymakers and insurers make it easier—and safer—to seek medical care during the pandemic.
“Telehealth is really instrumental in containing and treating disease, particularly in a public health emergency,” said Megan O'Reilly, vice president of AARP Government Affairs, an advocate for telehealth initiatives.
The option to connect with a doctor using telehealth is especially important for older adults living in rural areas or other “healthcare deserts” where medical care is hard to access. An estimated 65% of rural areas have shortages of healthcare professionals, according to the National Rural Health Association.
Specialists across disciplines have modified diagnostic and treatment practices used in the office for webcam-enabled visits.
Before Covid-19 led to quarantines, social distancing and masks, telehealth accounted for an estimated $3 billion in healthcare revenues in the U.S. But data shows that virtual visits could grow to account for up to $250 billion in healthcare spending.
O’Reilly, the AARP vice president, believes the increased use of telemedicine during the coronavirus pandemic could lead to widespread demand for virtual visits.
“It would be demonstrating the need for this access to telehealth and the important role it can play in healthcare,” she said.
It’s not just spending on telehealth that is going up; the quality of virtual healthcare is increasing, too.
New initiatives offered through a growing number of providers, including Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, use high-tech tools for remote patient monitoring to provide acute, hospital-level care for older adults in their homes, shortening the length and cost of hospital stays.
As the pandemic restricted the availability of in-person appointments, it forced older adults to schedule virtual visits. Positive outcomes stemming from telehealth this year are expected to trigger a virtual-first approach to care.
A survey of Medicare Advantage beneficiaries found that 91% who scheduled telehealth appointments during the coronavirus pandemic had a favorable experience and more than three-quarters expressed interest in scheduling virtual visits in the future.
The newly popular approach to healthcare offers significant benefits to older adults, reducing wait times, lowering costs, expanding access and allowing them to address many of their ongoing medical needs without leaving home.