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The giant leap: Three reasons behind telemedicine’s success

Brian T. Heimer, MD, American Health Network

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The setup

In the decade before COVID-19, telemedicine grew slowly. Visiting a doctor was for almost everyone a physical trip to their clinic. Video-visits were nearly non-existent, communication by email or phone was very limited, even basic triage was often done in person.

Reason 1: Prepared for deployment

Over the past decade as technology improved, we continued to develop our telemedicine delivery platforms and trainings.

Despite slow growth, American Health Network was a care delivery organization that saw how useful the umbrella of telemedicine services could be in providing access. In the last quarter of 2019, we trained 320 providers and facilitated 3,000 visits, which we found a robust figure.

As COVID-19 closed offices and made face to face encounters high risk, the pivot from clinic-based visits to telemedicine was rapid.

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However, our curriculum and platform were ready to perform. We expanded trainings to meet the demand and scaled up our platform to serve doctors and patients now in need of a safe way to give and receive care.

Our quick turn, allowing continuation of care through safe and well-developed technology, came as a result of preparation. Investing in innovation is key. COVID-19 proved this is just as true for primary care as it is for recognized high tech fields like neurosurgery.

Reason 2: Reimbursement for telemedicine

Responsibility for the slow advent of telemedicine is often laid at the door of reimbursement rules. As of 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had not made consultations via phone or internet billable transactions.

Again, the cascading effects of COVID-19 ushered in a series of Emergency Orders. One of these orders made telemedicine consultations billable or reimbursable transactions. Private payers followed Medicare and Medicaid in making this change.

The update in public policy shed sunlight on the seedling of telemedicine. We now have a much stronger place in the industry and based on approval of both physician and patient participants are likely to continue to grow.

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Reason 3: Doctor-patient relationships

Living and working through this pandemic has brought one unifying quality of providers into the light: our strongest motivator is our patients. Once it became clear that telemedicine was the safest way to deliver care, all providers were engaged.

Neither experience, age, nor digital inclination were barriers to embracing the best way to get back to caring for their patients.

For patients as well, the importance of continued contact with their trusted provider was motivation to chance an experience with new technology. Care delivery methods were imbued with the trust cultivated in the doctor-patient relationship.

The doctor-patient relationship being at the center of telemedicine influenced the overwhelmingly positive experiences reported. In the setting of a video visit, doctor and patient are looking at one another. The computer is no longer obstructing eye contact, but allowing them to focus on one another.

Of patients who tried video visits, 83 percent reported a positive experience.1 Despite pre-pandemic trepidation about the quality of medicine delivered through devices, 96 percent of physicians reported that their patient visits were effective.2

The future

With approval numbers such as those above, it is almost certain that telemedicine will be a staple of care delivery long after we are able to safely gather again. Convenience, ease, and the surprisingly intimate setting are appreciated by both patient and provider.

Telemedicine will help improve access to care. For patients with limitations that make business hours and travel to clinics a challenge, telemedicine options can improve quality of care.

As of now 81 percent of American adults own a smartphone, with growth in ownership up nine percent from 2019 to 2020 alone.

After witnessing the importance of telemedicine during this pandemic, we have a mandate to continue to invest in research and technology that will better deliver primary care.

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  1. Data from AHN internal survey
  2. Ibid

This publication is informational and for educational purposes for practitioners only. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Optum Care. The views and opinions expressed may change without notice.