Rise of telehealth in COVID-19 pandemic reveals flaws, but there’s potential to improve the patient experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated technology adoption — including digital health and hybrid care models — by several years. According to the 2022 Medication Access Report, 84% of patients surveyed said they participated in an online doctor appointment in 2021, and annual growth of 36.5% is forecasted for the telehealth market.
However, telehealth’s rise revealed structural flaws, including licensing for doctors to practice across state lines and insurance challenges related to virtual care coverage. Despite policy updates to overcome some obstacles, digital health isn’t sufficiently interoperable since data sources collected from telehealth services can make it difficult to match or identify the correct patient between systems.
These flaws may cause problems moving forward as digital health continues to grow, thwarting attempts to reduce care team burnout and optimize hybrid care models. They also may impact patients — requiring them to repeatedly relay their medical history to multiple providers.
Healthcare lacked interoperability long before telehealth’s uptick. Rather than creating a new problem, its unprecedented ascension added another variable to an already complex equation. Consider that the term “telehealth” actually refers to two camps, not one.
There are telehealth providers with homegrown electronic health record systems that hire licensed therapists and medical professionals to provide care. And then there are telehealth vendors that sell their solutions to third parties, so primary care physicians and health plans can offer virtual appointments.
Regardless of which camp a person goes through to obtain care, information from online doctor appointments doesn’t automatically sync with patient records — leaving primary care physicians unclear about the full scope of each patient’s care and recommended treatment plans.
When asked why they chose to participate in a telehealth appointment in 2021, 66% of patients said convenience. What’s more, 36% of patients reported using mail order, home delivery, or online pharmacies to receive their medication. Telehealth and digital pharmacy solutions can provide patients with an easy-to-access, end-to-end virtual experience.
Additionally, digital pharmacy technology can help further accelerate speed to therapy for patients when combined with other technology innovations like electronic prior authorization. These solutions also give telehealth providers differentiated capabilities that can help acquire and retain new patients — thus staying competitive in the growing hybrid healthcare landscape.
It’s unlikely telehealth will ever fully replace in-person care, and vice versa. They both have their unique limitations. Instead, the two systems will continue to coexist, supporting, and complementing each other along the way — thus making the push toward systemic interoperability even more important.
Industry-wide changes coupled with technology innovations can help telehealth providers advance patient care in collaboration with their in-person counterparts.
And that’s a great thing, since today’s patients demand more choice and flexibility at every touchpoint, including provider and pharmacy visits, whether in-person or virtual. Despite existing interoperability challenges, technology innovations that support hybrid care expansion will make that change easier for all.
H. John Beardsley holds more than 20 years of experience in a variety of health insurance, pharmacy, financial services, and healthcare technology roles. At CoverMyMeds, he oversees the Patient Experience team that builds solutions to help increase speed to therapy, improve medication affordability, reduce prescription abandonment and support improved health outcomes for patients. Prior to CoverMyMeds, he spent 11 years at Prime Therapeutics, a PBM owned by nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans.