We are nearing the end of 2020, which many have dubbed “the year of the pandemic.”
Even so, the pandemic has not shown any signs of slowing down, with many countries experiencing second or even third waves of COVID-19 outbreak. At the time of this writing, England has reintroduced another nationwide lockdown, for example, while others are mulling the same.
The raging pandemic and subsequent containment measures have significantly affected many industries, and the healthcare sector has not been spared. This is especially true for primary and secondary care providers, where face-to-face visits have decreased drastically and created major financial strain for practitioners. Tertiary providers are affected as well, with hospital organizations around the globe reporting varying degrees of financial losses, primarily driven by a significant decrease in elective procedures and services.
For hospitals handling COVID-19 cases, the rising number of infected patients has in some instances overwhelmed capacity, leading to inefficiencies in healthcare delivery and introducing greater opportunity for error. From the patient’s perspective, this translates to restricted access and delays in care, ultimately resulting in potentially poorer health outcomes.
To help address these challenges, telehealth has emerged as an essential component of healthcare delivery. The demand for telehealth services is rapidly rising, with the expected long-term growth and adoption of telehealth services being hastily compressed to meet the urgent, pandemic-driven needs of practitioners and patients.
Expansion of Telehealth Services amid the Pandemic
Many associate telehealth with telemedicine or teleconsultation, which is simply a platform replacing face-to-face interaction. While telemedicine has its merits, especially with simple or follow-up consultations, it does not readily support advanced health services such as testing, treatment planning, and progress monitoring, without additional modules or programs. Thus, for the purpose of this article, telehealth refers to a healthcare delivery platform that facilitates the execution of healthcare services between providers and patients, as well as between providers and other providers – this includes telemedicine and other services allowing care to be rendered remotely.
Telehealth has expanded significantly in 2020. Among healthcare service providers, digital platforms are being used to share vital information without unnecessary delays. Case referrals, consultations between specialists, imaging and test results tracking, and other functions have moved online, both to limit coronavirus exposure and to facilitate treatment. In Korea, for example, the staff of Seoul National University Hospital has embraced the use of an online meeting platform to collaborate and interact. More and more remote test kits and monitoring devices are being developed and distributed to collect samples or data – not just for COVID-19 but for other conditions as well, such as diabetes and hypertension – without the need for a face-to-face encounter.
In the consumer space, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in Italy has just launched a platform to provide telehealth services in the comfort of the patient’s home. A recent Forbes article has reported that hospitals in the U.S. are “scrambling” to offer telehealth and home services amid COVID-19 to supplement revenues as lucrative elective procedures are cut back. In Asia Pacific research from Global Market Insights, a market research and management consulting company, estimates expected growth of almost 17% in the telemedicine equipment market between 2020 and 2026 to meet demand in the region.
From a mental health perspective, reports indicate that the psychological impact of the pandemic is also significant, especially when access to help is restricted. This has prompted development of telehealth platforms to ensure at-risk groups are served. In Africa, for example, to meet the mental health needs of those affected by the psycho-socioeconomical impact of COVID-19, numerous telehealth platforms have emerged. We are seeing heightened awareness of the general need for mental health services, not just during a pandemic.
See also: Insurers connecting consumers to mental health resources amid COVID-19 pandemic
It is increasingly likely that the demand for remote healthcare services will continue well beyond the pandemic, especially when the infrastructure and processes are already available, provided they are cost-effective and able to keep the user base engaged (more on this later). The insurance industry must be prepared to respond to this paradigm shift in healthcare delivery.
Telehealth and Insurance
The insurance industry is no stranger to telehealth. Some insurers already offered telehealth services in one form or another prior to the pandemic, often alongside wellness programs. Others stepped up to telehealth when COVID-19 entered the scene. Most, however, have yet to launch a full-bodied, comprehensive telehealth program to facilitate the end-to-end health or disease journey of their customers. One of the main reasons is the lack of clarity around the cost-effectiveness of such programs.
The long-running debate of costs versus benefits of telehealth programs has naturally moved toward the pro-telehealth side amid emerging needs in the COVID-19 era. This has created a need to redefine telehealth services to encompass intended objectives and determine associated costs. With that information, the development of a telehealth program can be better planned and executed.
Fortunately for the insurance industry, most of the technology required to implement an effective telehealth program is already available in most markets. The challenge is therefore to identify which tools are best suited for particular markets, and if more than one service is required, how to bring the different providers together. It starts with understanding the building blocks of a telehealth program.
Building Blocks of Telehealth
Barriers to entry in telehealth abound. The more important hurdles for companies include costs, data privacy, and legality, while consumer-driven obstacles include general resistance to change, technology naivete, and particular reluctance among older ages. While the pandemic may have lowered some of these barriers and improved adoption readiness, they remain barriers nonetheless and should be addressed when designing a program. Moreover, while the utilization of telehealth services is rising during the pandemic, it is reasonable to expect a decline once the crisis is over should the barriers to entry not be addressed.
Providing telehealth services is a multiparty, collaborative effort requiring effective interactions, at the very least, between program coordinators and patients. Often, a program also involves other parties such as healthcare providers, technology companies, operations or call centers, logistic companies, and third-party administrators. The more parties involved, the more coordination required. Any disconnect between parties may mean loss of effectiveness, higher resource and maintenance costs, and lower user engagement.
Additional considerations range from identifying the right technology and operations infrastructure to fulfilling local and regional legal obligations. Above all, the services provided by a program need to address the healthcare demands of the customers, with favorable health outcomes and cost-efficiency as ultimate end points.
Telehealth is growing and likely here to stay beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The insurance industry should take note. While insurers may choose not to directly run their own telehealth programs right now, they should familiarize themselves with program requirements in order to keep up with the rapid development in this space.
A successful telehealth program has clear objectives, a plan for keeping customers engaged, and operational requirements that are cost-effective and sustainable. A comprehensive approach with adequate consideration given to the many necessary components and complex interdependencies is required to deliver holistic and effective healthcare services.