The COVID pandemic has turned a simmering trend into a roaring boil. Telehealth, which was once a small segment of a billion-dollar industry, has become commonplace and sometimes even preferred.

The Meteoric Rise of Telehealth

From June 2019 to June 2020, telehealth claim lines increased by a whopping 4,132 percent nationwide, growing from just 0.16 percent of medical claim lines (pre-pandemic) to 6.85 percent of medical claim lines (during the pandemic). And even as the pandemic slows down in many parts of the world, telehealth services continue to be in high demand.

Research from Frost & Sullivan predicts growth of nearly 700 percent by 2025, with a five-year compound annual growth rate in the neighborhood of 38.2 percent.

While every healthcare system is different, here are a couple of real-world examples that show just how quickly (and significantly) telehealth has grown over the past year:

  • At NYU Langone, virtual urgent care visits grew by 683 percent between March 2, 2020 and April 14, 2020. Non-urgent care visits ballooned by an incredible 4,345 percent over that same period.
  • At MedStar Health, the system went from approximately two daily telehealth visits to 4,150 (in a matter of two months). They now have the infrastructure in place to enable more than 15,000 virtual visits per week.

Stories such as these are common across the healthcare landscape over the past year. And nearly all experts are in agreement that this is just the start.

“The critical need for social distancing among physicians and patients will drive unprecedented demand for telehealth, which involves the use of communication systems and networks to enable either a synchronous or asynchronous session between the patient and provider,” says Victor Camlek, healthcare principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

At this point, technology is not the biggest barrier to adoption. We’ve reached a point where the technology – including a combination of cloud computing, IoT devices, and 5G connectivity – is in place to provide exceptional services. The single biggest bottleneck is patient-side education. Once the gap is closed and patients understand what’s happening in the industry, adoption will really take off.

The Benefits of Telehealth

While the recent increase in telehealth services was clearly driven by a need for social distancing, it’s important to look at the big picture. To understand the long-term appeal of “virtual medicine,” we have to get clear on the benefits. They include:

  • Lower cost of care. Telehealth dramatically reduces the cost of care for patients. It does so by eliminating physical barriers and increasing the chances that patients will actually take the time to invest in preventative care (which makes early detection possible).
  • Better engagement. A lack of engagement is one of the biggest concerns patients have before trying telehealth for the first time. But in most cases, patients actually discover better engagement than in-person visits. Wait times are lower, notifications keep patients engaged, and they have the doctor’s undivided attention.
  • More convenient. The convenience factor of telehealth is hard to beat – particularly for rural and elderly populations who may find it difficult to make it into a doctor’s office for an appointment. The same goes for immuno-compromised individuals who need non-urgent care, but don’t want to put themselves in a risky situation by visiting the doctor.
  • More profitable. Not only is telehealth more cost-effective for patients, but it’s significantly more profitable for doctors. Telehealth visits require fewer resources and are also less time-consuming. This allows doctors to see more patients per day. The result is lower overhead and more revenue.
  • Superior patient satisfaction. In one study, 87 percent of patients using telehealth indicated they would use it again. This high level of patient satisfaction indicates that these services are here to stay.

When you put all of these benefits together, it’s clear why the experts and analysts are so bullish on the future of telehealth. Now let’s explore some of the trends.

Top Trends in Telehealth for 2021 and Beyond

Anytime you have a rapidly growing space with new technology, trends will come and go. Here are a few of the top short-term telehealth developments for 2021 and beyond:

1. Shift in Medical Residency Training

While the core underlying principles and responsibilities for healthcare professionals remain the same, whether in-person care or telehealth, there are plenty of nuances that come with remote care. And though doctors and nurses can always adapt, there’s something to be said for formal training.

For the first time ever, we’re seeing a new class of healthcare professionals enter the industry with telemedicine training.

As explains, “Younger physicians have grown up in a predominantly digital world. So, it’s natural that the doctors of tomorrow are learning to use technology in conjunction with their traditional medical education.”

We’re seeing this both in terms of dedicated telehealth tracks and subtle changes to how medical students are trained.

For example, video recording for medical residency observation is now commonly used in many programs. It offers a number of benefits, including the ability to standardize patient scenarios, review a student’s performance, and offer real-time remote feedback.

VALT software by Intelligent Video Solutions is one commonly used platform. They have a wide range of features, including a “talkback” feature that lets remote observers communicate with students in real-time during their clinicals to reinforce good behaviors and provide suggestions. This keeps the information fresh in the students’ minds and promotes greater retention.

It’s little details like this that are creating sweeping change. It’ll take time, but with thousands of young professionals entering the industry with a totally different perspective and skillset, a natural shift to telehealth is bound to occur.

2. AI Becomes the New Triage

Artificial intelligence (AI) is not new. But the way in which it’s being used to enhance telehealth services is quite revolutionary. In some practices, AI is now being leveraged as an alternative to typical “triage.”

For example, AI-based software can rather effectively identify pulmonary nodules in chest X-rays. By determining whether or not moles are malignant, treatment plans can be initiated with less delay and greater accuracy. In essence, the software becomes your “triage person.” And from that point, the doctor can review the results, meet with the patient, and implement a proactive treatment plan.

While AI should never replace the doctor, it can be a great option for enhancing the physician’s role. Viewed through this lens, AI will continue to act as a useful telehealth tool (cutting down on in-person visits and speeding up results).

3. Support in all the Right Places

It’s one thing for the technology to be in place. But in order for telehealth to truly take off (and stick around), there has to be ample support from the “powers that be.” And over the past several months, we’ve seen new support come from all of the right places. This includes employers, insurers, and one of the world’s largest companies.

As industry insider Sarahjane Sacchetti explains, “Employers are taking notice of this shift with 32% indicating that expanded virtual health services are a top priority, and this number will quickly rise as employers look to offer flexible and convenient benefits in support of employees and to drive productivity.”

As far as insurers go, companies (and even government-administered programs) are more willing than ever to cover telehealth services. They see the benefits in remote care and are supporting patients who go this route.

Additionally, Amazon’s own in-house telehealth service is vocal about creating changes to reimbursements so that remote health services – including in-home care – can be paid for in the same way that other types of care are reimbursed.

Amazon is putting its money where its mouth is. The billion-dollar ecommerce giant has recently joined forces with companies like Landmark Health, Dispatch Health, Home Instead, Ascension, and a handful of other organizations to create the “Moving Health Home” coalition.

4. Need for Greater Cybersecurity

As the shift to telehealth continues, the topic of cybersecurity will become increasingly important. Between HIPAA laws and other strict industry regulations, providers will have to enhance their systems to mitigate attacks and prevent breach attempts from compromising sensitive patient data. It’s a very real concern that will require a concerted effort and fresh innovation.

Telehealth: More Than a Trend

There’s no denying that the massive spike in telehealth adoption is the direct result of the pandemic. However, that’s only part of the story. As things begin to normalize, it’s becoming clear that the sudden surge in remote medicine was more than an isolated boom – it was a real world use case that telehealth is a viable option in today’s marketplace.

Moving forward, we can expect to learn a lot from 2020 and 2021. And while it could be years before we see this industry mature to its potential, it’s clear that things are on the right track. This is more than a trend – it’s the next evolution of a trillion-dollar industry.

Frank Landman

Frank is a freelance journalist who has worked in various editorial capacities for over 10 years. He covers trends in technology as they relate to business.