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Telehealth in 2021: Trends and Challenges

CoAdvantage- Telehealth, or the delivery of health services via remote technology, has seen as much of a increase over the past year as remote working from home has.

Virtual appointments were already on the rise before the pandemic. A 2019 study found that telehealth services grew by 53%, an already impressive number, between 2016 and 2017. But the pandemic was a genuine booster. A 2020 study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that telehealth visits increased by 154% – more than doubling – between March 2019 and March 2020.

This makes sense, of course. The pandemic forced many health practitioners, just like other businesses, to find remote ways of operating to limit office traffic and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

And like remote working, remote healthcare is likely to continue growing into 2021 and beyond. However, for truly widespread adoption, telehealth still faces some significant challenges.

Technical Telehealth Challenges

As with Zoom and other remote conferencing solutions, telehealth requires all parties to have relatively modern computing equipment and good, reliable Internet access. “The number one issue [with telehealth has been] technical issues,” says Karen Young, the Health Industries Leader at consultancy group PwC. She says that these issues extend beyond simple IT and extend into the psychological, with “a lot of people feeling uncomfortable being on video.” Telehealth isn’t going anywhere if patients aren’t willing to use it.

Reimbursement Challenges 

Another set of challenges has to do with reimbursement, making insurers hesitant about telehealth. In fact, some insurers even took steps to reduce or end telehealth copays last year. Right now, regulations governing reimbursement for telehealth are handled largely at the state level. While a number of states have been passing laws requiring insurers to cover telehealth the same way they cover conventional medical visits, that’s not true everywhere.

In fact, prior to COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) itself had restrictions on where services can originate if they are to be eligible for reimbursement. Many of those restrictions were waived during the pandemic.

Telehealth is here for the long haul.

Regardless of the specific challenges, telehealth is indisputably on the rise. It is widely seen as an increasingly viable alternative or supplement to traditional, in-person care.

“We’ll continue to see the uptick of telehealth, the scalability of it, the consistency of telehealth,” predicts Young. “And those experiences, I think, will continue to grow and the consumers and patients will continue to demand it.”

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