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When COVID-19 started to spread across the country and around the world, the healthcare industry had to quickly find an alternative for face to face consultations. Patients couldn’t safely visit a doctor’s office in person, and for many, it wasn’t an option to simply postpone appointments until after the pandemic. Healthcare professionals turned to telehealth, and its widespread use during COVID-19 has helped to cement its place in the future of medicine.

In addition to being the ideal option during a pandemic, telehealth appointments could be the solution to meeting the needs of previously underserved communities and providing more convenient treatment options for a variety of patients. The current crisis has showcased just how far technology has come and how these advancements can benefit the healthcare industry. As technology continues to develop, there will likely be more opportunities for non-traditional forms of patient care.

To more accurately predict what the future of telehealth will look like post-COVID, it’s helpful to first examine the present state of telehealth including what it consists of and the types of medicine it now covers. From there, you’ll start to form a clearer picture of where telehealth is headed in 2021 and beyond. Understanding how doctors and other healthcare professionals have utilized telehealth during the pandemic will shine a light on future uses for solving long-standing healthcare problems.

What is Telehealth?

Telehealth utilizes technology such as video calls to connect patients and healthcare professionals remotely. As long as both parties have an internet connection, they can have a consultation without having to physically be in the same room. In large part due to the pandemic, many clinics and hospitals have started utilizing or increased their number of virtual appointments.

With healthcare technologists working to improve virtual appointments, telehealth is growing at a rapid pace. The benefits of telehealth include fewer sick patients in waiting rooms, scheduling flexibility, increased convenience, reduced health care costs, and better access to care. Furthermore, telehealth lets patients connect and communicate with healthcare providers in a manner that feels most comfortable to them.

While virtual appointments might be the most well-known telehealth feature, there are other components including patient portals and remote patient monitoring. Many hospitals and clinics have already established secure and private patient portal systems. These patient portals allow individuals to easily communicate with their healthcare providers and see information about their health such as test results as soon as it's available. Remote patient monitoring utilizes wearable devices or at-home technology so that healthcare professionals can track vital signs like heart rate, glucose levels, and blood pressure without requiring an in-person visit.

How Telehealth is Currently Serving Patients

At the start of the pandemic, many patients with chronic or ongoing health issues canceled their appointments out of fear they might contract the virus if they met with their doctors in person. Others tried to stick to their treatment schedules but were met with reduced availability of healthcare services due to an overflow of coronavirus patients. In both these scenarios, telehealth stepped in to bridge the gap.

Telehealth has also been useful for treating COVID-19 itself. Virtual visits have helped to limit the number of patients and staff coming into hospitals and clinics. In both pandemic and non-pandemic times, some of the biggest inconveniences of hospital-based ERs are overcrowding and long wait times. Telehealth helps to address both those issues. Individuals who think they might have COVID-19 can use telehealth to consult with their healthcare provider. While serious cases still require in-person treatment, addressing milder cases via telehealth has alleviated some of the pressure on the overwhelmed healthcare system.

Following the switch to telehealth during the pandemic, many patients found virtual visits preferable to meeting with their doctors in person. Thanks to telehealth, they didn’t need to make arrangements for transportation or childcare to attend their scheduled appointments. A busy schedule was no longer an excuse for missing an appointment. Looking beyond the pandemic, telehealth could help to provide better, more convenient healthcare for patients. 

Where Telehealth is Headed After the Pandemic

As more people are vaccinated and the healthcare industry starts to turn its attention to post-COVID operations, telehealth will likely move away from one-off treatment to more chronic management. The future of telehealth post-COVID could look like a virtual primary care practice. Additionally, the option to use telehealth will expand to more specialists. For example, vision care via telehealth is beginning to gain popularity.

Another area that is seeing growth is virtual tools for mental and behavioral health. In response to an uptick in people experiencing anxiety and depression due to the pandemic, many telehealth providers started offering mental health resources including access to licensed counselors and psychiatrists. Even after the pandemic, the availability of such resources will likely continue to grow since telehealth is a convenient option for patients who are having trouble leaving their homes.

But, to move forward and continue growing, telehealth providers will need to address issues such as how to reach underserved populations. While telehealth may seem like the ideal option for people living in rural communities, such areas don’t always have the broadband connection required for a high-quality video call. Low-income households might not have the necessary technology for telehealth.

Other issues that telehealth providers will need to address include data encryption and privacy. To meet demand during the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services relaxed regulations so that doctors and hospitals could offer telehealth services. If telehealth providers want to continue with their services post-COVID, they’ll need to invest in the latest data encryption technology to adhere to HIPPA privacy requirements and fend off hackers.

The future of telehealth post-COVID will depend on if providers can rise to meet these challenges. If so, telehealth will expand healthcare access and provide more convenient treatment options for a variety of patients.