While Telehealth Got a Slow Start, There Is No Stopping It Now

Man using his smartphone to talk to his doctor from home.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year, telehealth has taken off and become an important tool to help alleviate the strain on hospitals and keep patients and healthcare workers safe from the virus. Telehealth is expected to grow 65% this year, and it’s clear that remote visits will be a more common part of healthcare, at least until the virus is under control and patients are again willing to visit a doctor’s office for their appointments.

With this dramatic rise of telehealth in such a short period, we wondered why it wasn’t used more widespread before the pandemic. Let’s take a quick look at how it developed, as well as where it could be heading. 

Humble beginnings

Telehealth — also referred to as telemedicine — connects patients to their healthcare information or providers using technology. A common example is a doctor’s appointment conducted entirely over phone or video. One of the first clinics in the U.S. to offer telehealth was Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1967, the institution treated 1,000 patients remotely

But telehealth didn’t get a strong foothold at the time for a couple possible reasons. For starters, it relies heavily on the ability to provide the technology and infrastructure to support it. This could be a huge barrier for a clinic to set up remote services. Additionally, insurers were reluctant to cover phone or video visits the same as they would for in-person visits.

As hospitals began recognizing the benefits, however, funding for telehealth grew slowly in the 1970s, and some hospitals began launching their own modest programs over the following decades.

Related: Telemedicine Is Here to Stay, and Interpreting Needs to Be Part of the Conversation

The turning point for telehealth

It seems that modern telehealth began in earnest around the early 2000s after the internet became widely available and computer technology started developing more quickly. Access to faster connections and portable devices such as tablets and laptops has accelerated telehealth programs, and use has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years.

In 2018, the American Medical Association conducted the first comprehensive report on telehealth usage by providers and found that just over 15% of providers offerd some sort of remote health visit.

Now coronavirus has necessitated a wider use of remote health services, and a new law signed by the current administration under the National Emergencies Act will provide $15 million to expand access to telehealth services. Some states, including Maryland and Virginia, are taking an additional step and ordering private insurers to cover remote visits the same as they do for in-person visits.

Telehealth will play an important role in healthcare as it fills a gap left by fewer in-person appointments, as many patients don’t want to risk getting coronavirus by visiting an office.

Telehealth has seen success for non-emergency concerns, mental health visits, routine issues, and chronic disease management. It also helps patients in more rural areas when it’s more difficult for them to make a trip to a doctor’s office. 

It may have had a slow start, but telehealth is quickly on the rise. In-person doctor visits won’t go away for good, but remote healthcare will be a much bigger part of routine care moving forward.

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