The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly expanded the use of telehealth — and in a very short amount of time. In the early months, many elective, non-emergency, in-office visits were canceled to reduce patients’ risk of catching the illness. This meant providers had to find new options to provide care remotely.
Research from McKinsey & Company shows that the use of telehealth surged during the early months of the pandemic. Peak usage was in April 2020, where overall telehealth utilization for office visits and outpatient care was 78 times higher than in February 2020. As of July 2021, the use of telehealth remains high — 38 times higher than before the pandemic.
The popularity is not surprising when you consider the benefits of telehealth. Now, let’s take an in-depth look into how telehealth can improve patient care and health outcomes.
1. On-demand care for patients
When it comes to their healthcare, patients want convenience. They don’t want to waste time sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room. They don’t want to drive hours back and forth to see their care team. They have pressing questions about their health conditions and don’t want to wait until their next appointment to get the answers they need.
An excellent example of the need for on-demand care can be seen in the mental health field. When someone faces a mental health crisis, they need immediate intervention. Without access to crisis care and support, patients can face higher costs due to longer hospital stays and readmissions. In addition, without immediate access to mental health care in a comforting setting, there’s a higher chance for poor outcomes due to a patchwork of disconnected services.
The good news is that many health insurance plans have broadened their coverage to include telehealth services.
This means patients can now quickly resolve or get advice about minor ailments before they become more severe. New parents can quickly connect with their pediatrician to address newborn health scares. Older adults can now get the care they need without having to coordinate transportation or disrupt their daily routines. Patients’ trusted care teams are now able to answer questions quicker than ever.
2. Improved wait times
Compared to the typical in-office visit, virtual visits tend to be shorter. This is especially true when you consider patients’ time spent traveling, filling out paperwork, and waiting to see their care team. With shorter visits, clinicians can see more patients, which decreases wait times.
While true in primary care, specialty care has particularly benefited from telehealth services. Research shows that image-based triage can be twice as effective in reducing unnecessary appointments when compared to traditional triaging. Across all health disciplines, telehealth can lead to anywhere from a 16% to an 89% reduction in wait times. For some specialty areas, such as clinical genetics, time to see a clinician has been reduced from 3 to 4 months to just 6 to 8 days.
Telehealth interventions are effective in reducing wait times plus improving the coordination of specialty care services. With reduced wait times and more efficient patient visits, clinicians report feeling less burnout, higher satisfaction, and improved communication. This is one of the biggest benefits of telehealth — it improves the experience for both doctors and patients.
3. Better healthcare access for rural and underserved areas
Across the U.S., some communities lack adequate access to care. Rural and other underserved areas face a clinician shortage and severely reduced numbers of specialty providers. When patients cannot find a provider, don’t have reliable transportation, and cannot take time off from work to visit with their care team, the health consequences can be severe.
With telehealth, many of these obstacles are minimized. For example, one study tracked 11,281 patients in a university-based outpatient telehealth program. This program reduced patient travel by more than 5 million miles. Patients’ time savings amounted to almost 9 years, and the total cost savings added up to nearly $3 million. When barriers to care are removed, patients are more likely to seek out the healthcare services they need.
Another frequently underserved patient population is non-English-speaking individuals. These patients often have a tough time accessing multilingual primary care providers and specialists. When they live in a rural area, it can become even more difficult.
Telehealth diversifies the provider pool. Therefore, it’s easier for patients to find clinicians who speak their language and understand their cultural norms. In addition, some organizations now specialize in delivering interpreter-assisted telehealth sessions.
4. Easier, more frequent patient communication
What happened in the past when a patient forgot to follow their care plan?
Maybe a member of the patient’s care team attempted to contact the patient to get them aligned. It might have meant that the patient needed to call the office for a check-in, interrupting the clinician’s full schedule. Or, in the worst-case scenario, maybe the patient didn’t get back on track until their next appointment.
Instead, today’s patient portals are designed to track health information and keep everyone on the same page. If a patient forgets an element of their care plan, they can visit their patient portal without the need for handwritten notes or a call to the doctor’s office. If it’s time for a patient to set up a follow-up appointment, the portals often include easy-to-use scheduling features.
Another benefit of telehealth is that it simplifies information sharing. When clinicians don’t feel the pressure of packed waiting rooms, they’re able to spend more time with each patient to get a better understanding of the patient’s current health and health history. Clinicians are also able to easily send exam notes, diagnostic results, and other patient information to specialists so all members of a patient’s care team are fully informed.
5. Cost savings
One of the most impactful benefits of telehealth is cost savings.
Take, for example, how missed appointments can impact your bottom line. It’s been estimated that 67,000 patient no-shows can cost the healthcare system approximately $7 million. Automated reminders are often integrated into patient portals. When those reminders are used, these patient no-show rates (and associated costs) are decreased.
As further proof, a systematic review in the Journal of Health Policy and Management found that telehealth in dermatology, radiology, pediatrics, and the intensive care unit reduced the cost of healthcare by 56%. On the patient side, there is also a 94% reduction in travel costs.
6. More engaged patients with remote patient monitoring
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) is the use of technological devices to monitor a patient’s health, capture important data, and transmit that information to the patient’s care team. With RPM devices, clinicians can access real-time clinical data instead of relying upon patient health reporting.
RPM devices are beneficial for patients in several ways:
- RPM devices can improve patients’ health literacy. By seeing their health data and tracking changes over time alongside their care team, patients can learn to better manage their conditions. Patients also can see how their behavior and lifestyle have a direct link to their health, encouraging them to follow their care plan and ask insightful questions of their providers.
- RPM devices can lead to more engaged patients. Again, because data is easily available, patients can view their progress and make more informed choices. When their care team checks in and provides encouragement, patients can become active partners in improving their health.
- RPM devices can boost patient outcomes. When handled correctly, RPM devices have been found time and time again to improve patient health outcomes. Evidence from 4 systematic reviews showed remote patient monitoring techniques lead to better outcomes for patients with Type II diabetes. Similarly, patients’ blood pressure was found to be reduced after renal transplant because of RPM device usage.
And, when combined with virtual healthcare visits, RPM devices serve as another useful tool to enhance clinician-patient communication. Via telehealth, a clinician can review the patient’s data, make truly personalized recommendations, and provide useful guidance without ever having to meet face to face.
7. Reduce the spread of COVID-19
With the rise of COVID-19, telehealth services have allowed clinicians to continue seeing patients in a safe, remote environment.
Another benefit of telehealth is that there is built-in social distancing. Consider a typical in-office visit. Someone must enter the building, touch multiple surfaces, come into close contact with several people, and sit in a waiting room near other patients. All of this could lead to disease transmission.
Now, consider a telehealth visit. Clinicians can evaluate symptoms before a patient enters the office. They might determine that an in-person visit isn’t necessary at all. This then protects an uninfected patient from potentially being exposed to an infected patient during their visit.
8. Higher patient satisfaction
Considering all the benefits of telehealth listed above, it’s no wonder that telehealth also has high rates of patient satisfaction. In fact, J.D. Power released a survey of 4,302 patients who used telehealth services over a 12-month period.
What were the findings? The patient satisfaction score for telehealth was 860 out of 1,000 points. This is among the highest ratings for all healthcare, insurance, and financial services studies conducted by the organization!
Similarly, a survey from the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition found that 80% of patients who used telehealth during the pandemic were satisfied with the care they received.
As you consider the use of telehealth in your organization, it’s important to note that more than 70% of patients surveyed also reported that they plan to continue with virtually delivered care after the pandemic. If you aren’t jumping on this opportunity, those patients may seek out another provider that is.
Ready to implement telehealth in your care facility?
It’s clear that there are benefits to telehealth — for both patients and care teams. As technology continues to advance, there will be even more opportunities to integrate virtual visits, RPM devices, and other telehealth services into your care delivery model.
If you’re ready to start the next step, take a look at our guide to telehealth. After reading, you’ll know everything you need to know about telehealth modalities, use cases, technology, billing, documentation, and much more.