Telemedicine: Just a Phone Call Away

Prior to the pandemic, the idea of scheduling a virtual doctor appointment was about as novel as online dating was in the late ‘90s. Telemedicine was used by less than 5% of the U.S. population, primarily in the area of mental health with the emergence of new apps like Better Help and Talk Space. In-person doctor visits decreased as the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases increased last spring. This decline forced many insurance companies to loosen restrictions on the previously limited use of telehealth appointments. Many doctors’ offices responded to the demand by taking advantage of this opportunity to figure out how to use telemedicine successfully. Healthcare consumers responded by jumping on the telehealth highway. Now that telemedicine has been added to the American healthcare portfolio, patients will need continued guidance to identify when to use these options.

A study conducted by the JAMA Network Open noted that traditional medical appointments decreased by 52% last April. Patients initially canceled or postponed appointments that were not urgent to decrease the risk of exposure to COVID-19. In response, many insurance companies removed barriers to telehealth usage by expanding covered services to encourage patients to maintain their health throughout the pandemic. As a result, the tides changed, and the use of telemedicine increased dramatically. In fact, telehealth appointments increased by more than 4,000% in April. (Yes, that was three zeros!)

Patients now have the option in many cases to choose whether to meet their physician in person or virtually. That being said, consumers should evaluate which type of appointment makes the most sense given the goal of their doctor visit. In-person appointments and telehealth are not always interchangeable. While a virtual doctor appointment is useful for minor illnesses like a sore throat, it is not effective for visits that require a procedure or biopsy. With that in mind, US News points out that telemedicine is expected to support, not replace, the functionality of in-person visits. This is good news for patients who enjoy the perks of online healthcare visits. Benefits include convenience and flexibility to fit a visit into their busy workday.

Is telehealth here to stay? It looks like it has become a part of the fabric of our healthcare lives. Consumers should check with their insurance provider to confirm coverage as the market predicts some changes in insurance coverage as time goes by.

Originally featured in UBA’s April 2021 HR Elements Newsletter.