Telehealth: A Critical Tool in the Wake of Coronavirus

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This photo, “2016.04.06 Digital Health Howcove – Telehealth 00108” is copyright (c) 2016 Ted Eytan via Flickr and made available under an Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth has allowed people to engage their primary care physicians remotely while practicing social distancing. With recent changes to FCC and Federal Medicaid/Medicare policy, telehealth is now gaining greater traction and attention. With a recent West Monroe Partners study finding that although 80% of hospitals in the U.S. have some sort of telehealth service, only 18% of 1,000 Chicago residents surveyed used telemedicine services in the past year (and that 73% are open to using telemedicine as an alternative to in-person visits), we talked to Nathan Ray, director in West Monroe Partners’ Healthcare & Life Sciences practice, about the background of their study and why telehealth services are a critical tool.

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Telehealth services provide physicians the opportunity to more effectively engage and maintain patient relationships as well as provide preventative and treatment options. For example, someone who has initial symptoms of a cold can contact their physician remotely rather than wait until there is a need for in-person intervention. (Triage for coronavirus is one service that can be performed via telehealth services. ) Certain specialized fields like dentistry are great opportunities for telehealth services; fourteen to fifteen (14 – 15) percent of emergency room visits are based on dental emergencies and would be easily preventable through early telehealth intervention. Preventative measures and interventions (like a remote session with a dermatologist about skin issues) become easier for patients through telehealth, and behavioral and mental health issues can be more easily addressed through telehealth services.  (One great example are  telepsychiatry services recently implemented by the Chicago Department of Public Health).

According to Nathan Ray, Medicaid and Medicare will allow providers to bill and be reimbursed for any type of encounter with patients where health issues can be monitored without the need for an inpatient visit, including physical and behavioral health encounters. Prior to the current coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, only a few providers were early adopters of telehealth, with many physicians considering it a potential future strategy. There are currently no standard tools or platforms for telehealth as many providers are using readily available online communication tools to provide services, and this can potentially remove barriers to people engaging specific health services (Dental hygienists in rural areas could share charts with remote dentists to provide greater access to patients and lower costs). As more people are stuck in their homes due to coronavirus/COVID-19, telehealth services “reduces the friction” of seeing their physician (as Nathan explained) and lowers the overall cost of primary care visits.


From March 4 to March 16, West Monroe Partners surveyed 1,000 residents in the metropolitan Chicago area (as well as residents in Seattle and Minneapolis) around their use of telehealth services. (Links to infographics are provided) All three cities showed similar results: approximately one out of five residents had used telehealth services, and four out of five would consider using telehealth services. As Nathan Ray explained, physicians who provide telehealth services can not only engage in more preventative measures but also facilitate greater engagement by reducing overall resistance and removing key barriers such as taking time from work and travel expenses. With federal legislation empowering Medicaid/Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services, private and employer-based insurance providers may follow as they observe how Medicaid providers adopt and develop policies around telehealth reimbursement.

Even outside of the current coronavirus/COVID-19 panic, telehealth provides a great opportunity to foster greater engagement and interaction between patients and their primary care providers. With Chicago’s current stay-at-home policy in place, many people rely on telehealth providers as a way to maintain their relationship with their physician, but also as a critical self-care strategy. As my recent conversation with Nathan Ray of West Monroe Partners reveals, telehealth is not only just a critical tool; it also has the potential to shape how health care resources are used. With its potential to reduce resistance towards engaging primary care providers, telehealth has the potential to facilitate a deeper, more productive relationship between patients and their physicians.

Especially after the current crisis ends.

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