Maximizing the Value of Telehealth: Who Can Benefit Most from Embracing Remote Care?

Mandy Bell, MHA, Innovation Officer

During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has proved itself a force to be reckoned with. Remote care services have sparked new interest during a time of lockdowns, social distancing, and widespread safety concerns.

After an astronomical spike early in the global health crisis, telehealth visits have now settled down to comprise approximately 20 percent of all primary care and specialty encounters. Patients and providers have both become more comfortable with video chats or quick calls to tackle a variety of health concerns, and it doesn’t look like we are planning to go back to the old ways any time soon.

Now that telehealth has comfortably established itself in the mainstream, it’s time to think about how we will optimize our remote care strategies for the future.

It’s important to acknowledge that telehealth won’t completely eliminate the need for face-to-face interactions between a patient and a provider. Hands-on exams are still fundamentally necessary to diagnose a wide variety of health concerns. And some patients remain more comfortable discussing sensitive matters with their provider in person.

Instead of thinking about telehealth as a complete replacement for traditional care, we can view it as a tool for augmenting and enhancing existing relationships, expanding access to care for underserved populations, and improving experiences for patients and their clinicians.

Here are some of most promising ways that patients and providers can benefit from telehealth now and in the future.

A virtual front door for primary care

Primary care is the backbone of the healthcare system. Whether it’s a routine physical, a common illness, or the start of a more complex treatment pathway, patients tend to interact more often with their primary care practice than with any other type of provider.

Many of these visits are relatively quick and simple in nature, making them perfect candidates for telehealth. Video chats and phone calls are a convenient and effective way to renew existing prescriptions, continue chronic disease management, or diagnose low-risk conditions with established, evidence-based treatment pathways.

During the pandemic, telehealth kept the doors open to patients who might have considered putting off essential primary care, with one recent study indicating that telehealth helped offset around 40 percent of the decline in office visits during the early days of the pandemic.

Now that many patients have experienced the positive effects of telehealth for primary care, they are likely to continue doing so, multiple polls and surveys have revealed. Primary care is likely to remain at the forefront of telehealth as patients and providers develop a new normal of hybrid virtual and in-person care.

A lifeline for mental health and behavioral health patients

Arguably, mental and behavioral healthcare have benefited more than any other specialty from relaxed telehealth regulations. With increased reimbursement parity and fewer location-based restrictions, patients who were previously unable to find care from psychiatrists, psychologists, and substance abuse specialists suddenly had access to experienced providers like never before.

It’s no wonder that mental and behavioral healthcare has seen the highest sustained rates of telehealth use, with telehealth still making up half of psychiatry visits and 30 percent of substance abuse visits in February of 2021, according to data from McKinsey & Company.

Telehealth for behavioral and mental health concerns does present clinical challenges. However, remote consults can also significantly expand access to therapy, medications, and life-saving treatments such as suboxone, especially for traditionally underserved socioeconomic groups.

A crucial connection to hard-to-find specialists

From endocrinologists and neurologists to OB-GYNs and rheumatologists, high-quality specialty care can be difficult to find, particularly for patients in rural areas or other communities without academic medical hubs.

Remote care can connect patients with these experts without requiring investments in travel, childcare, or time off work. With the addition of remote patient monitoring devices, such as home blood pressure monitors or blood glucose devices, patients can also maintain ongoing relationships with their specialists to keep chronic conditions under control.

Specialty telehealth may be equally valuable for providers looking for second opinions from their colleagues. Even before the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of emergency physicians and more than a quarter of radiologists and pathologists used telehealth to communicate and consult with other providers, an American Medical Association survey found.

These dual advantages make specialty telehealth an area to watch as the industry continues to develop innovative technologies.

COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the evolution of telehealth, creating new opportunities to leverage audio and video consults in increasingly intriguing ways. As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, telehealth will continue to be a powerful tool for expanding access and improving experiences for patients and providers across many areas of need.


About the Author:
Mandy Bell is Innovation Officer at Avel eCare in Sioux Falls, SD. She oversees Avel’s specialty consult, direct to consumer, and school health telehealth programs. She also facilitates the innovation process within Avel that has launched 9 of Avel’s 11 telemedicine verticals and garnered over $100 million in grant support. She is a founding member of the American Board of Telehealth and oversees daily operations. She serves as the Principal Investigator on several telehealth research grants. Mandy has a Master’s in Healthcare Administration from the University of Minnesota and has been working in telehealth for 13 years.