Adnan Iqbal

Three ways telehealth will get better in 2021

February 26, 2021
By Adnan Iqbal

During the Covid-19 pandemic, telehealth has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have.
Indeed, the crisis has spurred health providers to rethink the entire patient experience, as they've realized that patient care does not have to be face-to-face in every case. Physicians can deliver effective and complete care virtually—while providing greater convenience and comfort to their patients.

As telehealth benefits become clear, physicians and care teams are eagerly exploring more ways to expand at-home and remote care. Meanwhile, patients are clamoring for better, more convenient healthcare experiences on their end.

Until recently, video consultations with a doctor were available only to those patients with the means—a fancy smartphone, a high-speed connection, and an expensive concierge medical plan. And, pre-pandemic, only a small percentage of providers were equipped to operate telehealth services. But now, in the wake of Covid-19, we know that a large majority of providers in the U.S. are available via telehealth.

This increased ease of access has led to more regular and complete care for patients. Telehealth is also making life easier for practitioners, who themselves can now work from home. In a world where chronic conditions lead to increasing costs, telehealth is proving to be a great way for health systems to effectively do preventative care and reduce the number of people who arrive at the emergency room.

The past 12 months have shown us that telehealth can truly move the needle for both patients and physicians. But the reality is that telehealth is not always equitable and can further exacerbate the growing digital divide. While we make it easier for some patients to get in front of a physician, we must not make it harder for others.

Take, for example, Americans who are 65 and older. These are the patients who typically require chronic disease management. According to the Pew Research Center, only about 60% of these patients use smartphones or have broadband connections at home. Likewise, low-income Americans are another at-risk group, as only about half of these patients have basic digital literacy.

The New England Journal of Medicine found that while telehealth visits climbed from 3% to 80% in the pandemic's early days, the proportion of visits by patients 65 and older declined from 41% to 35%. And among patients with a non-English preference, video visits dipped from 14% to 7%.
But the situation should improve in the year ahead. How? Here are three predictions for telehealth in 2021:

1: Telehealth will be more accessible to everyone. Telehealth doesn't have to be video-only. For instance, healthcare providers can make it easier for everyone to stay connected by deploying a text-first communication strategy that enables them to reach all or most of their patients. Healthcare providers will also invest in systems that have built-in language tools to ensure that all patients, no matter their native tongue, can get the right care from the comfort of their homes. Designing a telehealth experience that works for everyone—not just the wealthy—providers can go a long way toward bridging the digital divide.

2: Telehealth will offer patients greater control. Video visits will soon be the bare minimum. Healthcare organizations will have to include value-add services as part of their telehealth offering to stay a step ahead in an increasingly competitive marketplace. These services might include online self-scheduling tools that make it easier for patients to book their appointments and interactive text messaging that guides patients to the right type of care with the right provider based on their unique needs.

3: Telehealth will start to pay for itself. Telehealth will continue to deliver overall cost benefits to both providers and patients. For example, the technology can enable clinics to extend their hours of operation while helping to cut down on cancellations and no-show rates. It can also allow providers to focus on a higher level of care while reducing expensive and unnecessary visits to emergency rooms.

The bottom line is that telehealth is here to stay because its advantages are obvious. It helps providers improve care and cut costs, and it improves access for patients. Indeed, telehealth will radically redefine the way healthcare is delivered—and it will continue to do so for many years to come.

About the author: Adnan Iqbal is co-founder and CEO of Luma Health.