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Posted by: Altura Benefits in Insurance
Telehealth is now a common option for many types of care, but this wasn’t always the case. Over the years, emerging technologies and new societal needs have helped shape telehealth’s evolution. Today, telehealth benefits are a staple of healthcare.
According to HHS, telehealth (also called telemedicine) allows healthcare professionals to provide care without an in-person office visit. A telehealth session might involve a patient and healthcare provider communicating live over the phone or using video chat. However, telehealth can also take the form of email, secure messaging, and secure file exchanges as well as remote monitoring that lets healthcare providers keep an eye on their patients’ vital signs from afar.
Although telehealth is often associated with online care, the idea of telehealth predates the internet. According to a paper published in the National Academies Press, an article from 1879 discussed how using the telephone could reduce unnecessary office visits and a magazine cover from 1925 showed a doctor diagnosing a patient via radio.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute started using videoconferencing to provide group therapy, long-term therapy, consultation-liaison psychiatry, and medical student training in 1959. By the 1970s and 1980s, videoconferencing had become increasingly common for psychiatric care.
NASA also played a key role in the development of telemedicine, which was necessary to monitor the health of astronauts and understand how space travel affected them. In 1964, NASA introduced the Integrated Medical and Behavioral Laboratories and Measurement Systems program to support longer spaceflights. This program paved the way for a terrestrial analogue.
By 2019, internet-based telehealth options were fairly common, and the concept was starting to become more mainstream. According to a 2019 report from the American Telemedicine Association, 40 states and the District of Columbia had been adopting policies or receiving awards to expand telehealth coverage since 2017. Most states had no restrictions regarding eligible provider types, and most also allowed multiple types of telemedicine, including synchronous (live, real-time) care, remote patient monitoring, and store-and-forward asynchronous options.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine emerged as a critical way to manage care without exposing patients and providers to infection. This was especially important for patients with health conditions that meant they were at risk of a serious infection.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Medicaid enrollees had telehealth options in most states before the pandemic. However, telehealth usage surged during the pandemic. The year before the pandemic, there were only 2.1 million telehealth services rendered. Between March 2020 and February 2021, there were 32.5 million telehealth services rendered – a more than 15-fold increase.
Medicare enrollees did not typically have access to telehealth coverage before 2020, but Medicare waived some of the restrictions in the early days of the pandemic. Telehealth quickly became a popular option, with 53 million services rendered between April and December 2020.
According to HHS, states also took steps to make it easier for providers to offer telehealth services across state lines. All 50 states used emergency authority to waive certain licensing requirements. Some of these flexibilities finished with the end of the public health emergency, whereas other states introduced legislation to extend these waivers or make them permanent.
Telehealth is not ideal for all types of care. However, it can be a useful tool for treating many different health concerns. According to HHS, telehealth is now used for mental healthcare, recurring conditions, post-surgical follow-ups, remote monitoring, physical therapy, prescription management, skin conditions, urgent care issues, and treatment for ADD and ADHD.
Considering that psychiatry was among the first applications of telehealth, it’s fitting that telehealth is now a popular option for mental healthcare. Research published in JAMA Network shows that 88.1% of mental health treatment facilities offered telehealth services in the third quarter of 2022, up from 39.4% in the second quarter of 2019.
According to Yale Medicine, telehealth for mental healthcare has many advantages, including unprecedented convenience that allows patients to access care however they need, even in their car while on a lunch break.
Employers have also been doing their part to make telehealth more widely available.
According to the 2023 KFF Employer Health Benefits Survey, telemedicine benefits had been growing steadily since before the pandemic and they skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic. In 2023, 91% of employers that had at least 50 employees and offered health benefits provided telemedicine benefits in their largest health plans. Of these employers, 20% used a specialized telemedicine provider, 59% provided telemedicine benefits through the health plan, and 19% offered both a specialized telemedicine provider and a health plan that included telemedicine options.
KFF also found that many employers consider telemedicine to be an important part of their benefits strategy. In the survey, 71% of employers said telemedicine will be important or very important in providing access to behavioral health services in the future, 61% said it will be important or very important in providing access to primary care, 46% said it will be important or very important in providing access to specialty care, and 69% said it will be important or very important in providing care to enrollees in remote areas.
Telehealth has both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, patients typically enjoy the convenience of not needing to drive to a doctor’s office and wait for their appointments. Depending on the program, patients may also have smaller out-of-pocket costs for telemedicine compared to in-person visits. However, some patients may prefer meeting in person and may experience technical difficulties with telehealth.
Overall, research shows that satisfaction with telehealth is high. According to the 2022 U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Study from J.D. Power, 94% of patients and their families who received care through a telehealth provider in the past 12 months said they would definitely or probably use telehealth to receive care in the future. In addition, 80% said it was their preferred channel for prescription refills, 71% said it was their preferred channel for discussing test results, and 57% said it was their preferred channel for regular mental health visits.
Telehealth will never completely replace face-to-face care. Certain medical conditions require in-person care. Plus, some patients simply prefer in-person interactions. However, telehealth has proven to be a practical option in many situations.
Telehealth received a boost during the pandemic, but it had already been gaining traction and it seems highly likely that it will continue to grow. Many people who have tried telehealth now prefer it for certain types of care. Additionally, with so many employers now offering telehealth options, workers will likely start to expect this benefit.
Are you keeping up with the telehealth evolution? If you’re not offering robust telehealth benefits yet, it’s time to jump on board. Altura Benefits can help you put together an employee benefits package that includes telehealth options. Learn more.
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