Telehealth has existed in many forms for many decades – centuries even, one could argue. From the earliest use of telephones and radio to bring care to rural areas or the first transfer of radiological imaging in the 1980s to modern-day mobile apps that deliver real-time health information, telehealth has steadily grown to answer evolving healthcare needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing mandates of 2020 have thrust telehealth – which encompasses telemedicine or remote clinical care – to the forefront of healthcare conversation like never before. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27, 2020, includes a provision that consumers with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) can have telehealth and other remote care services covered at no cost, even before their deductible is met. The CARES Act also allotted $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which aims to help healthcare providers deliver “connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations” in response to the pandemic.
Consumers who continue to shelter-in-place and who hope to avoid waiting rooms at all costs have begun to consider other means of receiving general care. Doctors have relied on telehealth services over the past couple of months to limit in-person visits to only the most crucial cases, and they’ve begun to explore how these alternative options could continue to play a larger role in a post-COVID world. “We’re learning, for example, in medicine that there’s a lot we can do differently – telehealth, video visits,” said Dr. Robert Harrington, president of the American Heart Association, in a webinar hosted by Livongo on April 7, 2020.
As interest in telehealth increases, we take a look at some the benefits that could make it a more routine part of care well beyond COVID-19.
COVID-19 has highlighted the risk those with chronic conditions and compromised immune systems face. Similar risks will remain after the pandemic, particularly during cold and flu seasons. These individuals may need more frequent consultations with a doctor while also needing to stay away from clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals to lower their risk of catching potentially life-threatening illnesses. One way to receive adequate, safe care and to keep informed is through remote monitoring and virtual check-ups.
Telehealth, in the form of virtual appointments and prescriptions, can allow for greater access to doctors without the potential barrier of conflicting schedules and lack of availability. Telehealth companies and apps tend to have expanded or flexible hours, giving people access to doctors at night, on the weekends and when they’re away from home. Removing the physical office from the equation increases convenience, too. People can take appointments from home and from the office (when life one day returns to normal), which saves time and hassle. The elderly and those living in rural or remote areas also benefit from the ability to have a consultation without leaving home.
Many healthcare and healthcare-related technologies emphasize real-time insight. The Alegeus Smart Account Mobile App, for example, uses AI to guide consumers to the right coverage, cash and care strategies – such as which local pharmacy could save them the most money on a prescription. Real-time telehealth, specifically, involves direct communication with healthcare providers to decrease anxiety, receive quicker diagnoses and immediately fulfill requests for prescriptions.
As healthcare costs continue to rise dramatically in the U.S., telehealth may offer a more affordable route. Annual subscriptions to some telehealth companies cost less than a single in-person office visit, reducing medical expenses up front. In the immediate term, the CARES Act allows HDHPs to cover telehealth services at 100%, with no cost-sharing to consumers and even before the deductible is met, until Dec. 31, 2021. Consumers who take advantage of this waiver will not be subject to the IRS “no dollar first coverage” rule, which normally makes consumers ineligible to contribute to an HSA if their plan waives coverage for services outside of preventative care. Therefore, consumers who receive full telehealth coverage under their HDHP will continue to be eligible to contribute or receive employer contributions to an HSA until the CARES Act deadline.
Learn how the CARES Act has removed some barriers for paying for healthcare services during COVID-19 here.