When social distancing was first implemented in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine appeared to be a temporary replacement for some healthcare visits. People still came in for appointments when in-person care was essential, but if the problem could be solved online, it was solved online. This raises the immediate question: if these problems can be solved online, why not keep solving them online? Historically, telemedicine has been impeded by three main barriers: applicability, lack of insurance coverage, and technology. However, with COVID and innovation as accelerators, telemedicine is breaking through.
The first barrier to telemedicine is applicability. If telemedicine is not useful, there is no point in pursuing it, no matter how cheap or easy it is. However, 62.6% of patients and 59.0% of clinicians report no difference in “overall quality of the visit” in telemedicine;1 and we’ve heard in our own interviews with patients and healthcare professionals that they are comfortable writing and receiving prescriptions for conditions that don’t require an in-person physical examination. Telemedicine visits save crucial time and money for HCPs and patients, and they are often just as good as going into the office. For a long time, HCPs and patients alike were stubborn about telemedicine. Now that they have been forced to adopt, they are gaining comfort with telemedicine and seeing its benefits.
If HCPs and patients are willing to adopt telemedicine for some cases, the next barrier becomes insurance coverage for patients, and reimbursement to healthcare providers. This barrier is breaking down, as Medicare is ready to cover telemedicine permanently, with a focus on rural areas where patients have limited access to healthcare providers.2 Private insurers have followed suit,3 making telemedicine appointments cheap or even free for patients with supplemental insurance. Telemedicine may be key to improving options for people who previously had little access to care, whether due to location or finances.
The final barrier to telemedicine is technology. If people don’t have access to technology, or they aren’t comfortable using that technology, they can’t readily adopt telemedicine. To help overcome this barrier, telemedicine platforms have been innovating rapidly,4 and it’s now possible for patients to access one-click virtual visits on their phones. The platforms are becoming simpler and easier to use, and 81% of Americans own a smartphone as of 2019.5 Lack of access to and understanding of technology are only temporary issues that are being solved by technological innovations, not true walls impeding progress.
The barriers are breaking down. Patients, HCPs, and Insurers all have good reasons to want telemedicine, and telemedicine itself keeps improving. Telemedicine isn’t just a COVID fad. Hybrid care is the future. When developing patient and HCP journeys and corresponding strategies, life sciences companies must consider the importance and nuances of both virtual care delivery and in-person visits, and how solutions can be customized to meet the unique needs of patients and HCPs who utilize telemedicine as well as physical office spaces.