America is returning to a new normal. States are taking a stepwise approach to reopening, and medical group practices are welcoming patients back into the office. As we move past the most urgent stage of the public health crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic — a stage that demanded an unprecedented, immediate and critical response — the country must begin to consider what the healthcare system will look like going forward.
Accelerating telehealth adoption
Like gasoline to a fire, the COVID-19 pandemic fueled the long-simmering embers of telehealth adoption. Providers who did not previously offer telehealth embraced technology as a means to remotely maintain patient access to care and attempt to make up for revenue lost from substantial reductions of in-person visits. By March 2020, 97% of healthcare leaders reported expanding telehealth access amid COVID-19.1
Developing telehealth capabilities has required group practices to invest resources in new technology, training and infrastructure. In a matter of weeks, groups have transformed the way healthcare is delivered and paved the way toward new ways to receive care, benefiting both patients and providers.
Before the COVID-19 public health crisis, group practices faced longstanding barriers to telehealth implementation, including cumbersome billing policies, inadequate reimbursement, inconsistent state licensure rules, difficulties with equipment/technology procurement, lack of interoperability and gaps in rural broadband. Not surprisingly, only about 0.25% of traditional Medicare beneficiaries received any telehealth service in 2016.2
Following the outbreak, regulatory roadblocks that may have taken years to remove were lifted over a few short weeks. As the virus continued to spread in March, Congress passed legislation enabling the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to temporarily lift many arcane regulations that constrained the growth of telehealth. As is often the case, many commercial insurers followed suit.
Before COVID-19: Barriers to telehealth