Telemedicine Could Be More Widely Adopted Due to the Coronavirus

Despite telemedicine having relatively low adoption rates in the past, interest in remote physician care has risen as the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing continue.

Between February and March 2020, the number of US adults who reported intent to use telemedicine rose from 18% to 30%, per CivicScience data. In February, about one in 10 said they had tried telemedicine, growing to 17% in March.

A McKinsey & Company study fielded in mid-March this year found that one in three respondents canceled upcoming medical appointments due to COVID-19. Roughly the same percentage (30%) said they would be interested in providers that offer online/video visits with a physician.

Telemedicine—which connects patients to healthcare services through two-way interactive video, remote monitoring or electronic consults—has not been widely used in the US prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), only 28% of doctors reported using telemedicine in 2019, which was about double the figure for 2016.

On the consumer side, a November 2019 Cheddar survey conducted by YouGov found that only 12% of US adults had used a telemedicine app, and roughly the same (14%) said they had never heard of telemedicine apps or websites. But nearly two-thirds were at least somewhat comfortable with the idea of receiving medical consultation over the phone or internet, citing convenience (53%) and cost (44%) as reasons to do so.

Since then, the pandemic has rapidly changed patient attitudes. In March, the government expanded Medicare telehealth coverage, which will affect roughly 44 million people covered under the program, per AARP. According to the new guidelines, beneficiaries will be able to receive a wide range of services, like office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screening without leaving their homes. Some large insurers—Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna and UnitedHealthcare—are temporarily covering or waiving telemedicine costs.

For physicians and medical professionals, telehealth can reduce exposure to those who have the coronavirus and cut down on crowding in hospitals that are facing a surge in demand. Although the service is not without limitations—doctors using telehealth cannot provide testing for COVID-19, for example—it is an effective alternative that can keep patients who are unlikely to have the virus away from hospitals. According to medical news site STAT, UnitedHealthcare estimates that a telemedicine session costs less than $50. That's a much more affordable alternative to a possibly unnecessary visit to the emergency room—which could cost more than $2,000.

Telemedicine startups in the US (such as Amwell, Doctor on Demand, Ro and 98point6) have reported an unprecedented surge in use as patients are told to avoid going directly to the ER if they do not have severe symptoms. According to a March 2020 SSCG Media Group study, 53% of the healthcare practitioners surveyed said they were using telemedicine because of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, but they had not used telemedicine prior to this pandemic.

"Now that patients and healthcare providers alike are experiencing telehealth, there will be no turning back," said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) in an interview with ABC News.

The ATA projects that 50% of healthcare services in the US will be conducted virtually by 2030. Globally, telemedicine was a $45.5 billion market in 2019, according to data from Global Market Insights. That figure is estimated to rise to $175.5 billion by 2026.

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