At first glance, the news that the federal public health emergency will remain in place through the remainder of 2021 might seem like a bad sign for hopes of quickly beating back COVID-19 and finally returning to normal. But it’s also good news for the continued growth of telehealth, and for patients.

Norris Cochran, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made the announcement in a letter to state governors in late January. The public health emergency has helped pave the way for increased adoption of telehealth services by waiving certain rules during the pandemic and establishing reimbursements for providers who offer telehealth services.

The news adds to an additional $250 million Congress has made available as a Round 2 of funding for the Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth program and $200 million through the federal CARES Act in March 2020. And it’s the latest sign that telehealth and virtual care are here to stay and will only play a growing role in healthcare in the coming years.

Telehealth is finding that rare middle ground in healthcare, with support from providers and patients alike.

In a statement delivered in March to a U.S. House subcommittee, the American Hospital Association voiced strong support for telehealth as “a critical way for patients to continue to access needed care” during the pandemic. It outlined a number of measures lawmakers could take to ensure that the shift toward more telehealth outlives the public health emergency.

Among other benefits, the AHA said telehealth was helping patients access more specialists. “One example of the impact made by these flexibilities comes from a hospital member who reported a 10-fold increase in access to specialists while reaching 39% more ZIP codes in their state using telehealth,” the organization said. “They also received extremely high patient satisfaction ratings; one such patient, a farmer, relayed how he conducted a visit with his physician via his smartphone while on his tractor, a process that would normally take three hours if in person.”

The clinical benefits extend beyond increasing access to care. In September, a study of 2,091 adult heart failure patients published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that telehealth was just as effective at preventing hospital readmissions as a visit with a primary care physician. Yet the study also found that more patients assigned telehealth appointments completed seven-day follow-ups than those assigned to in-person visits. Other studies have found telehealth helps reduce readmissions outright.

Patients also are responding favorably.

Last June, a survey of 1,000 patients who’d undergone virtual care during the first wave of COVID-19 found that three quarters were satisfied with their experiences, with half saying they’d be willing to switch providers in order to have more virtual visits.

As reported by Patient Engagement HIT, attentiveness by providers may actually improve with telehealth, simply because physicians aren’t as diverted by having to enter information into an electronic health record system. Instead, physicians can pull up the EHR right next to the telehealth window on their screen and even share the view of it with the patient as an education tool.

Telehealth offers many other benefits to patients:

  • Encouraging more preventive care, especially when telehealth is paired with remote patient monitoring tools that are easy for patients to use.
  • Easier access to care, especially for those who lack transportation options or cannot easily travel to appointments, live in remote areas far from a clinic or are disabled. In addition, many telehealth solutions may allow patients to easily access an online portal where they can view their health history, message their doctor, request a prescription and schedule an appointment.
  • Convenience, since patients don’t have to take time off work, arrange for childcare, drive to the doctor’s office or wait in the lobby for an appointment.
  • Physicians can get a view inside your living space to look for signs of allergens, see the types of foods on your pantry or refrigerator shelves or spot other issues that may have adverse health implications.
  • Screening patients for COVID-19 infection and refer them for further care, if needed.
  • Following up with patients after being discharged from the hospital more easily.

In 2010, RemetricHealth (then called PMD Healthcare) developed the first-ever patented, FDA-approved at-home spirometer, Spiro PD, which allows providers to remotely monitor lung function for patients with lung disease, diabetes or congestive health failure. We have since expanded our range, with remote patient monitoring kits that measure things including blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, blood glucose and patient compliance. The RPM kits add valuable real-time data to the ability to remotely connect physicians and their patients, providing a more comprehensive portrait of a patient’s health.

When patients are given RPM tools to complement telehealth, compliance should be made as simple as possible in order to get patients to follow care instructions. For RemetricHealth, that means our tools transmit data with no need for the patient to download mobile apps, connect to WiFi, send an email or engage in complicated technology. So, for example, our Spiro PD sends data to a HIPAA-compliant web portal where providers can review the information in real-time. We have designed our tools to be usable by people who have little experience with computers or smartphones.

In addition to catering to their internet savvy, patients should also be given solutions that are tailored to their individual health issues, such as CHF, hypertension, COPD or diabetes. Considerations should be made for patients who live in remote areas that may not be well served by high-speed internet. And finally, it should be easy for physician groups, hospitals, home health agencies and payers to better serve their communities, with significant reimbursements that reflect the effectiveness and widespread benefits of telehealth care.