Before the COVID-19 pandemic, medical executive Lyndi Church and her colleagues at Caring Hands Healthcare Centers in southeastern Oklahoma had been intrigued by telehealth, but they feared it was unworkable in their rural corner of the state.
Many residents of the area lacked reliable broadband or didn’t have the devices or technological savvy to use telehealth services. Church, the chief operations officer of Caring Hands, anticipated significant resistance. “We weren’t sure how our patients would take to it,” she said.
Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed.
Early on, Caring Hands stopped treating patients in its facilities. Health workers saw some patients in the centers’ parking lots, but other than that, Church said, all medical care occurred virtually. To her surprise, despite occasionally spotty mobile and broadband service, patients took to telehealth.
“The majority of our patients were incredibly appreciative of the service, especially when they were so fearful about coming into an office,” she said.
The use of remote health services soared during the pandemic, opening the eyes of many medical providers and patients to telehealth’s convenience, efficiency and relative low cost. But its future depends largely on whether state lawmakers extend emergency measures that made telehealth a viable alternative for patients and providers wary of in-person contact. The most important changes most states made were to expand Medicaid coverage to different types of virtual appointments and to enact telehealth coverage requirements for private insurers.
Mei Wa Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, a nonpartisan organization widely regarded as an authority on telehealth, estimates that the number of telehealth visits increased by as much as 40% during spring and summer 2020 and remains 30% higher than it was before the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Community Health Centers, the percentage of health centers using telehealth jumped from 43% before the pandemic to 98% during the early months of the crisis.
“The telehealth temporary policies helped so many people receive care they otherwise wouldn’t have received or may have put off getting until it became a more serious issue,” Kwong wrote in an email to Stateline. “To suddenly have that access taken away by a policy change could have significant, adverse impacts on many.”
Many states already have extended temporary telehealth measures that were set to expire with the lifting of public health emergencies, and other states are considering doing the same. Kwong estimates that there are more than 1,000 telehealth bills pending in state legislatures, many of which would allow more services to be provided virtually or mandate that public or private insurers cover them.
No organized opposition has emerged to the legislation, though it’s unclear how much providers will want to use telemedicine once their patients feel less anxious about exposure to the coronavirus.