TMCnet Feature
August 11, 2020

7 Reasons Patients and Providers Prefer Telehealth

Telehealth services are booming, and it’s not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual visits are so popular that the market is expected to be worth more than $70 billion by 2026.

What’s behind the trend toward virtual care? And who, exactly, benefits from it? Patients and healthcare providers prefer the model for the following seven reasons:

1.Increases Access to Care

Costs are only one component of healthcare accessibility. Large parts of the country, and particularly rural areas, struggle to find quality care because they lack doctors. More than a quarter of rural hospitals in the U.S. are at risk of closing.

Telehealth can’t bring more medical experts to rural areas, but it can help address access disparities. Attending a virtual visit requires only a computer and internet access — which, while still not universally available, is more accessible than driving hours to see a physician.

Although travel may still be necessary for surgeries and specialists, most routine care is consultative. Typically, general practitioners can make referrals, prescribe things like birth control, and give lifestyle advice without a physical exam. And if not, an in-person follow-up visit is always an option.

2.Reduces Patient Costs

For patients, reducing healthcare costs is about two things: increasing the proportion of services covered by insurance, and lowering the cost of those services in the first place. Not only do telehealth visits cost about half as much as in-person visits, but more insurers than ever cover them.

In California, for example, insurers were ordered to reimburse providers for telehealth services at the same rate they would in-person care. Increased reimbursements cause a cascade effect: Doctor’s offices are much more inclined to offer virtual visits if they know they’ll receive the same payment they would for a regular office visit.

Although patients don’t see the difference in their bill, telehealth also reduces hidden costs. Many professionals have to take time off to visit the doctor, which shows up in their paycheck as fewer hours worked. Costs like parking, tolls, and childcare also fall into this category.

3.Boosts Patient Engagement

Barely a third of patients are highly engaged. One reason is that the healthcare system is notoriously slow. Not only can it be tough to book an appointment in the near future, but delays at the doctor’s office can turn a 15-minute appointment into an hour-long ordeal.

Telehealth services can reduce congestion at doctor’s offices while encouraging bite-sized interactions. Waiting to speak to the doctor at home isn’t a big deal. And if a patient has a question about a symptom or medication, she may be able to hop on a quick video call with a nurse.

If a provider doesn’t offer telehealth services, the patient may be told to schedule a visit. Those who aren’t willing to wait weeks for the next available slot might decide to skip it altogether.

4.Improves Quality of Care

When telehealth was first proposed, some worried that it would reduce quality of care. Patient surveys prove those worries were unfounded: More than six in 10 told Massachusetts General Hospital researchers that the quality of telehealth was just as good as in-person care, while 21% said it was even better.

Why would remote interactions lead to better care? Aside from allowing patients to speak with a doctor sooner, telehealth encourages them to see a medical expert in the right field.

Especially in rural areas, patients often visit emergency rooms because they don’t have a primary care doctor or don’t live near the relevant specialist. Not only is emergency care expensive, but it isn’t intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of non-emergency conditions.

5.Increases Patient Privacy

Passed in 1996, HIPAA is a federal law that protects sensitive patient data from being shared without a patient’s knowledge or consent. But HIPAA can’t address some of the risks that virtual visits do.

Conversations can often be heard through the walls of exam rooms. Patient charts can be left in the room or on the printer by a forgetful staff member. Employees who ask their managers for time off for healthcare appointments may face uncomfortable questions.

Patients who take telehealth visits at home don’t need to inform their employer. The only people who might overhear them are their family members. Fewer documents need to be printed and sent, minimizing opportunities to intercept them.

Although it’s true that virtual services can be breached, the concern is overblown: Microsoft (News - Alert) data shows multi-factor authentication blocks 99.9% of automated cyberattacks. Surely, healthcare technology providers can apply a system most of us use to log in to our email.

6.Cuts Provider Overhead and Increases Revenue

For multiple reasons, telehealth services cost providers less than traditional appointments. They can also boost revenue, increasing profits.

Office space is expensive, especially in hospitals and metropolitan areas. An increase in virtual visits reduces the number of exam rooms and waiting room space needed. Smaller offices generally cost less to heat and cool, and because online models make self-service possible, fewer receptionists and billing professionals are needed.

Telehealth can also increase the number of patients a practice is able to serve. Because telehealth appointments improve access and are often shorter than traditional ones, providers can see more patients.

7.Makes New Services Possible

Before telehealth, a miniscule percentage of patients could afford at-home yoga instruction. Personalized diet plans required much more than an app download.

Not all telehealth services are traditional doctor-patient calls. One advantage of a for-profit healthcare system is that any medical or wellness service that can be offered remotely and profitably will be.

Taken together, these services create a flywheel effect: Because the root of many medical conditions is poor lifestyle choices, telehealth wellness services have the potential to drastically reduce rates of disease. Imagine if every heart disease patient had a workout and meal plan sent to their smartphone.

Peel back the layers on telehealth, and it’s no wonder patients, providers, and insurers are embracing it. Lower costs, higher quality care, greater access, and more privacy: What’s not to like?

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