What’s Next For Telehealth

It’s been an eventful past few years for Telehealth (to put it lightly). Telehealth usage started at less than 1% of outpatient visits pre-COVID, shot up to 13% percent in the first six months of the pandemic, and has since fallen back down to ~8%. With both COVID and telehealth usage numbers flattening, there has been a lot of conversation about the future and direction of telehealth moving forward. So what comes next?

There’s a striking range in what people think when they think “telehealth.” To many, their experience with it has been as a 1:1 replacement. They’ve had the same appointments with the same providers. However, instead of those being in-person, they’ve happened over video.

Given that, it is no surprise that telehealth visit usage numbers look the way they do. To these patients, telehealth visits quickly went from a non-option, to the only option, to a choice. Many providers now offer both in-person and virtual visit options, and will continue to do so. More choice is good for patients, but those visits remain a virtual copy of what they have traditionally been.

Telehealth goes from good too great when it stops copying and starts stealing. Telehealth truly succeeds when it takes the good parts of provider visits, but blends them with capabilities that would be impossible without technology. For example, new care models can utilize smart device data, asynchronous communication, and automated interactive educational content (often alongside shorter provider video visits), to deliver care that goes far beyond what could be possible in-person.

“Automated”, “interactive”, “asynchronous”, and “smart” all sound like buzzwords, but this new type of care is happening. Both startups and large incumbents are launching and scaling care models that are fundamentally different than what could be offered in-person.  The issues these new care models address (addiction, asthma, chronic pain, obesity, etc), and the type of care they provide, are all very different. However, these care models are unified by the common thread of tech-enabled recurring healthcare. Also excitingly, many of these new offerings are proactive. By more effectively addressing patient issues before they require urgent care clinics or hospitals, these models could fundamentally shift the type of care our healthcare system provides.

Before video games, there were mechanical pinball machines. You can (and people do) make video games that copy pinball machines. However, the best video games aren’t pinball machines copies, and we don’t sit here and talk about what percentage of pinball games are played mechanically versus virtually.

The above sounds a little absurd, but that is where the telehealth discussion is right now! Telehealth replacing traditional in-person medical visits 1:1 is a tiny part of the potential benefits.  Telehealth’s future should be forecasted based on the new types of care that it allows for.

That future is bright.