Is COVID-19 the “Telehealth Moment”?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant, ongoing challenges for organizations across the health care system. One unique challenge has been the need to provide ongoing primary and specialty care to patients who cannot physically visit a health care provider location, whether a physician’s office, clinic, or hospital. Health care providers have been forced to react in different ways, based on the unique needs of their patient population and their own organizational culture. Many providers have delayed procedures, modified office hours and visiting protocols, or created mobile delivery centers.

Among the most popular responses, seen across provider types caring for very different kinds of patient populations, has been the adoption and expansion of “telehealth” solutions that allow for video or telephonic consults between providers and patients. These consultations have allowed providers to respond to the pandemic by increasing COVID-19 symptom monitoring and ordering tests, as well as to provide a modicum of ongoing primary and specialty care.

Because the response from providers, payers, patients, and policymakers to the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, this brief offers an informed look at a dynamic environment that is being reshaped due to the tectonic shifting plates of economics, consumer demands, and public health. The COVID-19 public health emergency is rapidly reshuffling traditional business models and upending typical policy approaches used by officials at the federal and state levels. This article offers a brief review of the history of telehealth, identifies key state and federal statutes, notes differing business models and payment arrangements, and explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted patient and provider behaviors. It concludes with some observations about federal policy dynamics for the future, including the scope of telehealth benefit, payment, and consumer expectations.

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