In the past several months, Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) has risen from humble beginnings in a Wuhan farmer’s market to international status: dominating the news cycle, exhausting the world’s hand sanitizer resources, and generally monopolizing the mental real estate of the developed world.
As new cases continue to be identified in the U.S., politicians are giving coronavirus the attention it deserves, responding to initial accusations of inadequacy with proposals for funding and reimbursements for testing and other precautionary measures.
One of the primary targets of this emergency funding is telehealth. New York’s Governor Cuomo and the NY Department of Financial Services released a directive encouraging insurers to develop telehealth programs with participating providers. Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego announced he was introducing a bill that would allow Medicaid to cover all COVID-19-related charges, including virtual appointments. Major health industry groups like the Connected Health Initiative and the American Medical Association advocated for the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to telehealth and offer Medicaid reimbursements for telemedicine in emergency situations.
Many have cited this pandemic as the “put me in coach” moment for telehealth — digital innovation that has lagged in adoption because of cumbersome restrictions, red tape, and lack of funding, among other things. And it’s obvious why telehealth is the tool for this moment.
At its most basic level, telehealth can provide accurate information about the virus — what it is, what the symptoms are, and how to protect against it. It’s low-hanging fruit in the rank of benefits, as disinformation seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself. A local Costco suffered a run on toilet paper and paper towels, while the soap aisle remained surprisingly undisturbed: “Are we prepping for a snowstorm or a virus?” one shopper wondered.
A viral (no pun intended) tweet from CNN stated that “38% of Americans wouldn’t buy Corona beer ‘under any circumstances’ because of the coronavirus.” The tweet sparked a rash of sardonic responses. “Thirty-eight percent of Americans shouldn’t be allowed to roam free,” wrote one Twitter user. The statistic was later debunked in a statement by the CEO of Corona, but it proves how quickly and easily even the most ridiculous rumors can take hold in panic mode.
The simple security of receiving information from a trusted care provider through a mobile app or text notification can dramatically reduce the panic that rises from disinformation, and clear up confusion around prevention and precautions (and what beer you should be avoiding).
Real-time access to information is especially important for COVID-19 because of its quickly changing nature — with new outbreaks every day and new information about its prevention, there’s a need to keep people up to date on its spread and the most current safety advisories — a need that telehealth can fill.
Through video visits or bi-directional chat functions, text messaging or email campaigns, telehealth performs an even more essential service — keeping worried but healthy people out of emergency rooms and urgent care centers. Patients can’t be checked for the coronavirus from home — as a respiratory condition, it’s not conducive to virtual visits. But telehealth can help balance the load of care by identifying non-emergency situations and offloading them to different shoulders and offering patients the security of trusted resources.
Access to clinical guidance and information without the need to go into the office is a particularly important benefit for those who have been advised to take extra precautions in light of the virus: the chronically ill, the elderly, and pregnant women. These populations are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease and are typically still in need of clinical monitoring and care management. With telehealth solutions like remote patient monitoring that enable care from home, the risk of exposure through travel or hospital visits is dramatically reduced, and easily accessible information including FAQs can help lessen the anxiety that runs high in such populations even in the most normal of times.
But while the air is as ripe for telehealth as it is for bacteria, it might be too late for the coronavirus. No matter how many regulations are removed and how much funding is thrown at the problem, at the end of the day, many health systems just aren’t prepared to use telehealth solutions. The infrastructure doesn’t exist, the workflows aren’t in place, and many providers and patients haven’t used telehealth before.
Sometimes it takes a disaster to mobilize change. In that respect, coronavirus might be the Titanic of our time — it may be too late to stop the current disaster, but never again will a ship embark without enough lifeboats. To put it in healthcare terms, while logistical challenges may kill the ability to take full advantage of telehealth for coronavirus, this whole experience should serve as a clarion call for the future.
Telehealth is the care management tool of the future — let’s not wait until the future is here to use it.
Juan Pablo Segura founded Babyscripts in 2014 with the vision that internet-enabled medical devices would transform the delivery of pregnancy care.