Despite Technical Challenges During COVID-19 Pandemic, Healthcare Networks Plan to Increase Investment in Telehealth Technologies
Survey shows more than 50% of hospitals and health systems plan to increase virtual care services within two years, a development that can change how patients access clinical laboratory testing services
If anything positive came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the growing acceptance by physicians and health payers of telehealth—including telepathology, teleradiology, and other types of virtual doctor visits—as a way for patients to meet with their physicians in place of in-office healthcare.
In earlier coverage about the rapid adoption of telehealth and virtual doctor visits, Dark Daily has observed that this trend creates a unique challenge for clinical laboratories. If the patient has a virtual consultation with his or her physician, how would a clinical laboratory get access to this patient to do a venipuncture and collect the samples necessary to perform the medical laboratory tests ordered by the physician?
Additionally, the path forward in telehealth may have other barriers to overcome. In “The Pandemic Made Telemedicine an Instant Hit. Patients and Providers Feel the Growing Pains,” Kaiser Health News (KHN) suggested that the virtual office visit may not have been as easy for patients as news headlines made them appear to be.
Nevertheless, according to multiple reports, healthcare providers are planning to increase investment in telehealth technologies.
Disparate Technologies Led to Technical Difficulties for Virtual Healthcare Providers
The terms telemedicine and telehealth are often used interchangeably. However, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), there are subtle differences worth noting.
Telehealth is a broad term which refers to “electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care and services at-a-distance [while] telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance.
“Telehealth is different from telemedicine in that it refers to a broader scope of remote health care services than telemedicine. Telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, while telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services,” the AAFP notes.
Kelly Lewis, former Vice President of Revenue Strategy and Enablement at telehealth provider Amwell, told Healthcare IT News (HIT News) that “the COVID-19 pandemic caused telehealth adoption to skyrocket.
However, “Because much of this adoption was driven out of an abundance of necessity, there was little time for organizations to think strategically about their technology investments,” she added.
“With urgency at a high, payers, provider organizations and clinicians all turned to the quickest options available so patients could continue to get care. The result, however, was what we are calling platform ‘sprawl’—the use of a number of disparate solutions that are leading to a confusing and frustrating care delivery system and experience.”
Nevertheless, according to a survey conducted by HIT News and HIMSS Analytics, “More than half (56%) of hospital and health system leaders say they are planning to increase their investment in telemedicine during the next two years.” This, “shows that the huge surge in and mainstreaming of telehealth during the ongoing pandemic has caused the C-suite and other healthcare leaders to embrace the technology that has for so long existed on the periphery of medicine,” HIT News noted.
“The clear message is that telehealth is here to stay and will continue to expand,” Lewis told HIT News, adding, “The majority of payers without virtual care offerings also reported planning to add them in the next 24 months.”
The HIT News/HIMSS Analytics survey findings suggest telehealth will transition as providers aim for “smart-growth” instead of “pandemic-fueled expediency,” Becker’s Hospital Review reported.
Survey respondents expressed positive attitudes about telehealth:
- 56% of healthcare leaders plan to increase investment in virtual care over the next two years.
- 80% of respondents noted “very” or “extremely” important telehealth factors are integrating with existing workflows, fast video connections, and reducing administrative burden.
- 77% called telehealth platform integration with the electronic health record (EHR) “very” or “extremely” important.
- 80% envision positive clinical outcomes and patient experiences from a fully integrated telemedicine platform.
- 75% of payers said a single digital platform has potential to streamline member experiences.
Investors Eye Telehealth
Healthcare providers are not the only organizations mining telehealth’s potential. Worldwide telehealth investments grew to $5B in the second quarter of 2021. This represented a 169% increase from the same time in 2020, reported an American Hospital Association Center for Health Innovation Market Scan that covered a CB Insights report, titled, “State of Telehealth Q2’21 Report: Investment and Sector Trends to Watch.”
“With telehealth visits stabilizing at roughly 10 times pre-pandemic levels, digital transformation initiatives are rising across the field. As a result of the pandemic, 60% of healthcare organizations are adding new digital projects, with telemedicine becoming a higher priority for 75% of executives (vs. 42% in 2019) to improve the patient experience,” the AHA reported.
As Dark Daily covered in “Cigna Subsidiary Evernorth Acquires MDLIVE as Demand for Telehealth Grows Among Insurers and Healthcare Consumers,” the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated virtual care into the mainstream, creating opportunities to increase access to care, including clinical laboratory testing, and drive down healthcare costs.
Medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups are advised to keep pace with the changing healthcare landscape which increasingly puts a premium on remote and virtual visits. This has become even more critical as healthcare providers and investors infuse more capital into telehealth technology.
As physicians expand telemedicine virtual office visits post-pandemic, a clinical laboratory strategy to reach patients and acquire specimens will be required.
—Donna Marie Pocius