The economies of scale behind telehealth
With the advent of telehealth services, remote healthcare has seen an unprecedented surge – improving affordability, safe access, and treatment options. More than 75% of US hospitals have opened their services to connect with patients and practitioners at a distance, using telehealth. The primary factors for the surge in the adoption of telehealth have been the cost advantage in delivering healthcare, improved and equitable access to services, more efficient use of care workflow, and integration of technological advancements in healthcare to improve population health outcomes.
According to Fortune Business Insights, the telehealth market is estimated to grow at a 32.1% CAGR from $90.74 Bn in 2021 to $ 636.38 Bn in 2028, with North America holding the largest market share. Telehealth is maturing to the point where it will no longer be telehealth versus in-person and will instead be telehealth before in-person as a diagnostic point.
But are we effectively meeting these goals?
Telehealth is gaining traction as it improves the agility and quality of care for patients. Almost all state medical aid programs and several commercial payers cover telehealth services. According to a few studies, the telehealth market has increased majorly in the last two years, as compared with any previous years. Providers are now progressively adopting and implementing telehealth as reimbursement and licensure restrictions are relaxed. With high adoption rates, the returns from such technology integrations and upgrades can be realized in a matter of a few years.
The adoption has increased. But has it transformed the health economics of patients?
Earlier studies reveal that structural impediments, such as transportation issues, inconvenience, and time constraints, are the most common reasons for people not availing of healthcare, particularly in rural communities and the elderly. The long wait times for doctor’s appointments, as well as the disparities in access to specialized care, especially in rural areas, further discourage a chunk of the population to shun public healthcare networks.
Telehealth is seen as a preferable alternative, especially in the post-pandemic world. And understandably so, there has been a surge in the utilization of telehealth services by care seekers. The most obvious reason why the pandemic led to the surge is the crucial need for physical distancing that telehealth meets. Eliminating the need for travel also allows widening the net of healthcare services to tier 2-3 geographies, where the population would not traditionally have access to quality healthcare.
Telehealth, particularly, has had a significant impact on the management of chronic population that requires regular medical attention and would otherwise result in an emergency scenario. Tele-treatment of telepsychiatry and substance use disorder have shown encouraging results according to some studies, with impact statistics at par with face-to-face therapy. This will eventually reduce the care gap that exists for a section of society and boost overall savings.
Let’s now look at what the future of investments in telehealth looks like
According to industry experts, healthcare will transform into a model where a patient's first point of contact with a physician will be digital by default. The telehealth sector has already seen large acquisitions and high investments in 2021. Around 60% of healthcare firms are investing in new digital projects, majorly prioritizing telehealth. The announcement by the Biden-Harris administration has by far been the biggest fillip to telehealth with over $19 million in investments committed to improving health services in rural and underserved areas.
With changes in reimbursement policies and increased innovation, new entrants are flooding the market with more specialized virtual care platforms, fueled by a boom in venture capital dollars. Traditional players are hard-pressed to compete, as telehealth is becoming more of a commodity-type service. TelaDoc, MeMD, Lemonaid Health, Doximity, Hims & Hers, Talkspace, ZocDoc, KixCare, and other new/re-entrants are making a huge impact. Amazon recently launched its telehealth program – Amazon Care – nationwide and is collaborating with companies to use its services.
Like all pilot initiatives, telehealth has some limitations.
Access to telehealth services, especially speciality-based care is still not all-pervasive, although, we might be getting there soon. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable across the United States, is already providing guidance and funding support for telehealth service providers. If the FCC could further increase the subsidiary caps for telehealth service providers to expand coverage, it could lead to deeper penetration of such services in the remotest parts of the world, thus improving enrollees and increasing revenue generation.
The fast-emerging telehealth sector also faces limitations from the health providers that are yet to bring all-encompassing telehealth under their coverage fold. Although health plans have off late expanded coverage for virtual care services, particularly post the pandemic, some remote behavioural and physiological monitoring devices and services still sit outside the ambit. This creates financial concerns for both the provider and the user.
But as the adoption of telehealth and virtual care gets more common, health plans are eventually expected to cover monitoring devices and other behavioural health services to facilitate and improve the quality of virtual care.
A world of opportunities awaits us in telehealth
According to Lancet, millions of surgeries are getting cancelled for a variety of reasons, including low access to proper health care services and qualified surgeons. With the technological advancements and revolution in 5G technology, providers could bridge this gap with remote surgery/telesurgery, at a reduced cost.
Implementation of RPA and AI solutions in telehealth can further propel the growth of this industry. Administrative tasks, prescription management, diagnosis management, and patient data sharing, all can be processed with more agility and accuracy than ever before. AI algorithms can not only enhance the accuracy and speed of diagnosis but also assist doctors in detecting high-risk conditions.
Incorporating AI chatbots into any telehealth platform is another excellent use case of automation. Predictive AI/ML-enabled automation can be used to improve remote patient monitoring by automatically screening medical needs or detecting emergencies and alerting providers.
It is safe to say, that in healthcare, automation is not a futuristic trend anymore, it is the present. Help is just a call away.