As medical practitioners were faced with the abrupt arrival of the pandemic, they had to immediately adapt to new technologies and switch to telehealth – fundamentally changing the way healthcare is delivered. During the first few months of the pandemic, many private practices were forced to close their doors. Some have since opened with limited schedules, but many are still feeling the effects linger.
Telehealth has grown in popularity due to the efficiency and convenience it offers to both patients and providers. A recent CDC report noted that 30 percent of weekly health care visits occurred via telehealth from June to November 2020. According to the Health Center Program Data, 43 percent of health centers were capable of providing telehealth in 2019, compared to 95 percent of health centers using telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As patients and healthcare institutions navigate this remote landscape, many challenges need to be addressed. Particularly, the rules and regulations that govern telehealth and how to ensure telehealth platforms can be used safely to offer care. Beyond policies and laws, there are several infrastructure hurdles affecting the implementation of telehealth services in rural areas, making this population vulnerable to inadequate access to care. The same CDC report noted that rural areas reported the lowest average of weekly health care visits via telehealth.
Practitioners also face new challenges evaluating and diagnosing patients without having the ability to do a hands-on physical exam and access to vitals such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature during virtual visits. Telehealth visits are no match for direct, inpatient clinical visits, but practitioners are still trying to find its role in our current healthcare system.
Some of the ways we've integrated a technology-driven approach to healthcare at WellnessSpace is through putting together the best of both worlds. We focus on in-person visits that have the convenience of technology to enhance the experience of both members and their clients. We use client self-check-in kiosks, an interactive mobile app that allows our members to reserve suites on-demand, download invoices, manage their bios and message other members. We are focusing on providing an easy and integrated experience for both patients and practitioners, which is something that will play a key role in how practitioners and patients navigate the "new normal" as we move forward.
We can expect telehealth to continue to play a vital role in providing healthcare, but for the vast majority of practices, telehealth will supplement in-person visits, not replace them. In a release from the Department of Health and Human Services, surveyed practitioners expect telehealth to remain at 21 percent compared to 51 percent during the pandemic.
Overall, the pandemic has opened the doors for telehealth and increased its adoption among all age groups. It's provided an alternative for practitioners to still offer care, just in a different way. While it's not ideal for all situations, this technology is a tool that can help practitioners continue what they do best – helping patients.
Sunny Somaiya is the co-owner of Houston-based WellnessSpace.