The Necessary Rise and Adoption of Telehealth in 2020

December 22, 2020 | Stericycle Communication Solutions

In the spring of 2020, we hosted a webinar with Podium and Yext to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare and how the industry might shift in the wake of the pandemic. At that time, elective procedures had been put on hold and patients were starting to avoid provider visits. Uncertainty around regular and preventative care started to take hold. Telehealth visits were on the rise, and many expected virtual care to become the new normal. Now, the unknowns related to COVID-19 are becoming more clear. And some, but not all, of the predictions discussed just eight months ago have come to fruition.

We recently hosted another webinar and re-interviewed Matt Dickson, Vice President of Product, Strategy and GM of Communication Solutions at Stericycle, and Carrie Liken, Head of Industry for Healthcare at Yext, to better understand how COVID-19 has shaped patient engagement since the last time we spoke.

We recently hosted another webinar (now converted to a podcast) and re-interviewed Matt Dickson, Vice President of Product, Strategy and GM of Communication Solutions at Stericycle, and Carrie Liken, Head of Industry for Healthcare at Yext, to better understand how COVID-19 has shaped patient engagement.

In the webinar, we asked about lessons learned and the future trajectory of patient engagement. We also wanted to get their thoughts on whether the changes we’ve seen will be temporary or permanent. Below are lessons learned and key takeaways. You can listen to the full discussion here.

1st Lesson Learned: Telehealth Isn't One-Size-Fits-All

As COVID-19 emerged, telehealth became a necessity. With stay-at-home orders and cancelations of nonessential appointments, virtual visits were often the only option for most appointment types. Many believed this was the beginning of the telehealth era and that phone and video appointments would continue to flourish post-pandemic. However, recent data reveals otherwise. Epic is reporting that 69% of ambulatory encounters were delivered via telehealth in April 2020, but now that number is down to 21%.

Carrie Liken was quick to point out that when we entered the pandemic, telehealth utilization was in the single digits, as low as 1%, and, in some circumstances, it grew to 80% within weeks. So, while the current level of 21% is still well above historic levels, it’s not where many thought it would be.

One of the reasons for the pendulum swing might not be patient preference, according to Liken, but the simple fact that some care, including visits requiring a physical exam, must be delivered in-person while others, like post-surgical follow-ups to discuss pain levels, can be virtual. In September, we compiled a list of "What Types of Appointments Are Right For Telehealth Visits." We also learned that 60 to 70 percent of those who seek care via telehealth prefer phone over video, according to Stericycle’s Matt Dickson. He also shared that patients with appointments later in the day tend to be less likely to want to turn on their video.

The Takeaways:
1. Cater to all patient needs and offer both high-tech and low-tech approaches with your virtual visit strategy.
2. Determine which appointments are right for telehealth and continue to offer in person appointments when virtual care isn’t feasible.

2nd Lesson Learned: Telehealth Presents Access Challenges (and Opportunities) for Many Patient Groups

The necessity of virtual visits highlighted a key challenge with telehealth in 2020 creating access challenges in certain groups. Dickson pointed out this potential for a wider access gap as a result of telehealth, and the industry is seeing this happen in real time during the pandemic. There are groups where telehealth presents big challenges. Below is a list of patient populations that are the least likely to benefit from telehealth:

Seniors. For example, only 55% of seniors (aged 65 or older and representing 18% of the population) own a smartphone or have access to broadband Internet.
Those living in poverty. One in eight Americans live in poverty, and only 59% of those living in poverty have broadband access. For those patients who have the technological capacity, logistical challenges such as a private space within one’s home or basic health literacy can impact their ability to pursue telehealth visits.
Patients with mental health concerns. Care plan compliance is a challenge for patients struggling with mental health concerns, and that number seems to be growing. Nearly 41% of respondents are struggling with their mental health stemming from the pandemic. Add to that reports indicating that 10% of bereaved individuals struggle with extended bereavement that lasts six months or more. Each COVID-19 death leaves approximately nine bereaved family members, and given current numbers, that means we have approximately two million bereaved individuals in the U.S. If 10% of that number struggle with prolonged mental health issues, we may see new challenges for these populations.
Non-native English Speakers. According to a University of California primary care clinic in San Francisco, the number of visits with non-English speakers dropped by 50% when the center pursued a full telehealth strategy.

By early summer, our clients were reaching out asking how we could help make telehealth easier on their providers and patients. We compiled this list of "7 Tips to Share With Your Patients For a Successful Virtual Visit" and we defined exactly how Stericycle Communication Solutions can help with Telehealth appointments.

The Takeaway: Consider the needs of various patient groups when forming your virtual care strategy and make accommodations to reach parity when possible.

This year has taught us many things, but one thing is certain – telehealth finally got the attention it deserved in 2020, becoming a viable option for certain appointment types and in times of crisis. Solution providers like Stericycle and healthcare providers like our clients pivoted, innovated, and learned in 2020. We all know now how important it is to build a positive patient experience for telehealth programs (read the executive guide here), and we’ve also learned some best practices for an integrated telehealth strategy (read the eBook here).

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