Within just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused rapid, widespread changes to our ways of life—including the way providers deliver care to patients.
During the height of the pandemic, non-essential healthcare services were forced to take a backseat. However, the need for these services remained; patients, especially older and at-risk individuals, chose to forego care for their serious health issues for fear of contracting the virus. A survey by the SCAN Foundation and the John A. Hartford Foundation found that more than half of older Americans put off seeking medical treatment in March. As a result of the reduced visits, hospitals are reporting over a 100% decrease in operating margins.
To meet demand and sustain revenue, health systems are turning to telehealth—the use of technology and electronic communications to provide long distance care to patients in need. While many providers and hospitals were already making telehealth investments, the pandemic has accelerated its implementation and solidified its role in the future of healthcare.
Convenience and choice for patients
In an age of social distancing, telehealth services allow patients to receive care for minor issues from the comfort of their own homes, and the convenience and peace of mind it offers has won over many Americans already. According to a recent survey, 25% of consumer respondents say they’ve used telehealth services prior to the pandemic; 59% say they’re more likely to use telehealth services now, and 33% would even leave their current physician for a provider that offered telehealth access.
Telehealth also has the potential to address social determinants of health (SDOH) through its advanced technology and artificial intelligence capabilities. Providers can track SDOH factors like job status, education level, social and physical environments, and more to make customized treatment plans that take into account the patient’s total wellbeing. Furthermore, telehealth can also help provide greater access to healthcare for underserved or rural populations by eliminating financial and geographic barriers.
As evidenced by the consumer survey, patients in the future will choose providers based on the quality of their telehealth services. Hospitals and private practices will need to ensure they have a robust telehealth network in place going forward, otherwise they may find themselves falling far behind their competitors.
The need for a new virtual “bedside manner”
A generational divide is likely to develop between younger generations who will quickly embrace telehealth as just another technological service, and the older adults who may feel isolated and left in the lurch. Forty percent of older adults surveyed by the SCAN Foundation and the John A. Hartford Foundation say that telehealth visits are worse, or much worse, than a regular office visit.
Many seniors live alone and go long periods of time without social contact. For these older adults, the physical touch they receive from their physician is vital for their mental wellbeing. Without it, they may experience elevated levels of depression—which has been shown to worsen chronic conditions. And because of social distancing requirements, even younger individuals can experience similar side effects from lack of physical, in-person interaction.
Providers must develop more advanced emotional intelligence skills to be able to provide compassionate care to their patients. Skills like communication, empathy, and self-awareness will be what defines an adequate physician from an exceptional one. And not only must they be aware of their patient’s mindset, they need to observe their own as well to ensure they’re mentally able to provide the level of care and attention that is necessary.
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has generated a revolutionary change in healthcare that is here to stay. While there are many benefits to telehealth, there are also a multitude of challenges that providers must navigate in this ever-evolving landscape to ensure they’re providing quality care, even from a distance.