The healthcare industry faces a pivotal moment in telehealth, said American Telemedicine Association Board Chair Dr. Joseph Kvedar on Tuesday.
During his keynote address for the ATA’s annual conference and expo, taking place throughout the month of June, Kvedar noted that the past year saw unprecedented growth for virtual care amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, he said, “The choices we make in the next few months all around the industry are really going to pave the way for the next decade.”
Telehealth rates have leveled off after their astronomical rise last year, Kvedar said, although interest still remains healthy. He cited the results of one consumer survey that found three-quarters of patients reported that they would continue using virtual care for their respective conditions.
During the pandemic, he said, “For the first time in history, patients experienced the convenience of having the doctor’s office brought into their home, and by all counts they loved it.”
Still, Kvedar acknowledged the “strong magnetic force” pulling the provider industry back toward brick-and-mortar care – unless, he said, “we actively plan otherwise.”
“We have fixed assets,” he pointed out, such as buildings – although, he said, “there may be a time in the future where they become liabilities.”
“We’re like hotels; we have to fill our beds to make a living,” Kvedar said, possibly making it challenging to think about how to move forward with a hybrid model.
At the same time, he said, the pre-COVID-19 challenge of provider shortages is “not going to get any better.”
“And it really makes it essential that providers work to find the right balance of in-person and virtual care,” he said.
Kvedar outlined three “wild cards” that could affect telehealth’s future:
- The originating site rule. If that doesn’t change, allowing for patients to receive care at home, “that will create an Ice Age for telehealth reimbursement,” said Kvedar.
- Value-based reimbursement. An expansion, said Kvedar, would pull more providers toward telehealth.
- Tech companies as disruptors. Kvedar encouraged providers not to be intimidated by organizations’ new forays into virtual care.
Kvedar noted the importance of ensuring that telehealth does not exacerbate existing health disparities, pointing to universal broadband and audio-only reimbursement as two major ways to address the issue.
He also called upon providers, payers, suppliers and patients to exercise their respective power to defend virtual care.
Providers should “confront our place-based past”; payers should develop smart, appropriate, thoughtful and uniform policies; suppliers should innovate beyond virtual visits; and patients should “advocate, advocate, advocate for healthcare delivery that is high-quality, convenient and accessible,” said Kvedar.
“We’ve lived through a historical time,” said Kvedar. “But as I said, our work is not done; it’s just starting.”