In order to safely offer services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many healthcare professionals shifted to remote models of care. New providers also began offering innovative online services and disrupting established, dated industry practices. Patients who were used to long waits and missed work could suddenly get care from the comfort of their couches.
All of these new options for virtual healthcare have forever changed the landscape of modern medicine. And they have many benefits beyond the pandemic-era goal of reducing the risk of disease transmission between doctors and patients. Here are some of the ways telehealth makes healthcare better, safer, and more affordable for anyone with an internet connection.
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1. Accessible Options
In certain places, like some rural areas, access to healthcare facilities or providers is scarce or nonexistent. Clinics and care providers may be scores or even hundreds of miles away. It can be extremely difficult to find time to travel or get transportation to see a provider.
Specific kinds of care, in particular, can be especially hard to obtain. In the U.S., for example, there are areas known colloquially as contraceptive deserts. In these parts of the country, millions of women live without access to the full range of birth control methods. If they do manage to secure the prescription they need, their pharmacist may legally refuse to fill it.
The telehealth model provides millions of people with access to necessary healthcare services like birth control online. People who have an internet connection but lack the time or resources to travel can easily arrange appointments from home. Patients can schedule a virtual consultation and have their prescriptions delivered, even in more remote parts of the country.
2. Greater Affordability
Telehealth is generally more affordable for patients than onsite healthcare appointments. For example, a 2017 study published in Health Affairs found that an in-person visit for a respiratory infection cost an average of $146. In contrast, the average cost of a telehealth visit was just $79.
Plus, there are a number of low-cost telehealth options available for patients without insurance.
Onsite healthcare also comes with other costs that don’t apply to remote healthcare. Paying for gas or public transportation to a healthcare facility becomes expensive, especially if you live far away. Patients may also need to pay for childcare or eldercare or lose income by taking time off from work.
Telehealth is also more affordable for care facilities and healthcare providers. Telemedicine requires less office and waiting room space and less turnaround time between appointments. This means potential savings on rent and other overhead costs and more possible appointments per day, bringing in more revenue.
3. Better Care Providers
Before telehealth, patients were basically stuck with the specialists they could physically get to from where they lived. If you didn’t like your cardiologist and they were the only heart specialist near you, you were out of luck. Or you might’ve been limited to only a handful of local providers covered by your insurance.
If you or a relative needed specialized care, you might’ve traveled to another state and paid food and lodging costs there. Getting to and from the right doctor was a logistical nightmare that could easily bankrupt your family.
With telehealth, patients have the option of seeing providers in other towns, cities, or even states. While they may still travel for some onsite care, they don’t have to make the trip for every appointment. Patients can seek second opinions without leaving their homes, and more importantly, they can be choosy about whom they entrust with their well-being.
4. Ease of Managing Chronic Conditions
For patients who are older or disabled, accessing healthcare is easier and more comfortable than ever. Many services that previously required an exhausting and uncomfortable trip to the doctor’s office can now be handled from home.
Patients who need certain kinds of long-term care can also live much more normal lives. Having a chronic condition used to mean being in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices all the time. With telemedicine, those with chronic conditions can spend more time relaxing at home or being with their loved ones.
For instance, a patient who needed regular monitoring for a neurological condition used to have to make two appointments. First, they would go to a hospital radiology department to get a CT scan or MRI. Then they’d have a second appointment with a specialist to discuss the results and follow-up protocol. Now that second appointment can be done remotely, saving time and energy.
- Safety for Providers and Patients
Pandemic aside, onsite medical care has always carried a risk of infection, even from viruses like the common cold. Doctors’ offices and hospitals are prime breeding grounds for everything from the flu to antibiotic-resistant staph infections to norovirus.
Telemedicine protects patients and healthcare providers alike from contracting all kinds of diseases. Keeping more people at home means fewer opportunities for a virus or infection to spread.
Telemedicine can also protect patients from a different kind of threat. Some people, like victims of domestic or child abuse, may not be able to obtain medical care without the risk of violence. Telemedicine can enable abuse victims to get care without their abuser knowing they’ve gone to the doctor. Young people may be able to access contraceptives or other necessary care that controlling or abusive caretakers won’t allow.
The Road Ahead
Telemedicine can be an incredible resource that makes safe, private, affordable, and convenient medical care available to patients nationwide. But it’s still not a perfect solution. Not everyone has a private or stable internet connection. And telehealth can pose extra challenges for older patients or those with other accessibility needs, like blindness or deafness.
Healthcare innovators have their work cut out for them in terms of making telemedicine a more perfect science. And policymakers could do a lot more to remove some of the financial barriers to getting quality care. But in the meantime, telemedicine continues to expand healthcare access for millions of people.