Treat me through the phone: A look at how COVID-19 changed telehealth across the United States
WASHINGTON (November 8, 2021) –– In March of 2020, when the United States started to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most in-person visits for health services and/or preventative care stopped or became low-priority. Of course, the general health and well-being of Americans everywhere was not going to just remain good to great––many individuals had to keep seeing their health provider or doctor. In response, all 50 states and Washington, D.C. temporarily rolled back restrictions on telehealth to varying degrees to allow patients to access the care they needed from the safety of their homes.
These measures were primarily part of emergency orders, so many are being reversed or are soon to expire. However, telehealth has proven incredibly popular. The increase in use coincided with an increase in satisfaction with the services that patients were able to access. One survey found that the percentage of consumers who said they would continue to use telehealth services going forward increased from 11 percent pre-pandemic to 40 percent.
In a new report, Courtney Joslin, R Street Institute Resident Fellow for Competition Policy, examines these changing trends in telehealth policy. Focusing on four main categories of telehealth––audio-only, live video, store-and-forward and cross-state license policies––the report lays out which telehealth changes became permanent and offers a few key recommendations for policymakers seeking to expand telehealth in their state:
Consider audio-only telehealth expansions. Evidence has emerged that audio-only telehealth is particularly important for rural and low-income areas without broadband access. Policymakers should consider which pandemic-era audio-only policies helped these communities the most, and ensure state regulations allow for them.
Make specific allowances for store-and-forward telehealth to take better advantage of its full potential. Store-and-forward allows patients to upload medical data for a medical provider to review at a later time for diagnosis. More states should move towards legislation that reimburses store-and-forward telehealth.
Enhance flexibility for patients and providers located in different states. Policymakers looking to expand telehealth should consider state restrictions on medical licenses, and look to join licensure compacts or eliminate in-state license requirements.
“Debates will continue over when and how it is appropriate and safe to use telehealth, but one thing is clear. Telehealth is vital to the future of health care in the United States,” states Joslin. “It has the ability to solve many health care access issues, but regulatory restrictions greatly hinder its usefulness.”
While the regulatory environment for telehealth in the United States is moving in the direction of a more free and innovative health care delivery system thanks, in part, to the pandemic, there is much more work to be done. The research and recommendations laid out for policymakers in this report will help telehealth truly flourish in the United States.
Read the full report here.