Telehealth here to stay after pandemic growth

Three years into COVID, telemedicine continues to help doctors reach patients.

While some telehealth options were available prior to COVID, many health care providers quickly pivoted to telemedicine and remote health monitoring after the pandemic prompted shutdowns and social distancing requirements.

“All of sudden, the world shut down and people really couldn’t get out of their houses, they couldn’t easily get to the doctor’s office for care, but people still needed health care,” said Dr. Ward Blair, medical director of Kettering Health’s primary service line.

Three years later, telehealth is now an expectation of patients.

“The pandemic has really changed how we use telehealth,” said Mandy Via, senior product owner of telehealth and digital front door at Premier Health. “The pandemic really spurred the usage of that.”

Dr. Beejadi Mukunda, chief medical officer for CareSource Ohio, said many of the providers pivoted to telehealth and remote monitoring, especially for those members who either had symptoms of COVID-19 or those who were exposed to COVID-19.

“We encouraged providers to offer telehealth services and helped members overcome barriers to telehealth such as digital access and member education,” Mukunda said.

The state medical board relaxed telehealth rules during the pandemic, and those changes later became permanent. In late 2021, the Ohio General Assembly approved House Bill 122, which was later signed by Gov. Mike DeWine. The bill allows doctors to practice and provide care via telehealth as long as the standard of care is met.

“At the early times, we were doing well over 10,000 visits a week, and about over half of our outpatient business was coming from telehealth at the beginning when people couldn’t get out of the house,” Blair said.

For those with mobility problems or a lack of transportation, telehealth allows those patients to still be able to access their doctors. Telehealth can also help doctors reach more patients at different times of the day, without much disruption to patients’ normal routines.

“Providing telemedicine was made easier for the providers by removing many barriers,” Mukunda said. “CareSource also facilitated free access to a telemedicine provider if the members’ own providers were not able to offer telemedicine or did not have the capacity to cover all their members.”

After COVID restrictions were lifted, more patients came back to the in-office doctor visits, but doctors and experts say telehealth is here to stay.

When treatments became available for COVID, Mukunda said many of their members were able to get quick access to the providers via telemedicine and receive treatments without having to visit a doctor’s office or urgent care center, reducing the risk of exposing others to COVID. Health providers also found other illnesses could be easily addressed over telehealth.

“There is way more telehealth now compared to before the pandemic,” Mukunda said. “Many of the routine urgent visits to primary care physicians such as sinus infection, urinary tract infections, asthma exacerbations are easily handled via telemedicine.”

He said some providers have also started using remote patient monitoring, which is software that allows providers to manage acute and chronic conditions by virtually tracking patients’ vital signs and other clinical parameters, reducing hospitalizations and other potential complications.

“I think historically people thought telehealth was a fad,” Via said. “Consumers say otherwise.”

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