The widespread use of telehealth, or the use of technology to facilitate an “appointment” with a doctor, became a prevalent alternative during the COVID-19 pandemic to a physical office visit. Without a doubt, research suggests that telehealth was an effective alternative to a traditional clinic visit, helping patients receive important care and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
According to a recent study published in JMIR Human Factors, telehealth visits may be here to stay. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges along the way.
The study surveyed physicians practicing internal medicine, with about 148 doctors responding. The findings suggested that about 40% of respondents saw value in continuing to provide telehealth services to patients. "In the U.S. we talk about this iron triangle of healthcare which is quality, access and cost. The results of this survey show that physicians who practice internal medicine... say they would continue with telehealth. This is great in terms of achieving the iron triangle," said Bhavneet Walia, assistant professor of public health at Syracuse University and the study’s lead author.
Telehealth is the use of technology to enable a connection between a doctor and a patient without the need to physically be in the same place, such as through phone or video chats. While telehealth certainly raises important concerns--such as individual patient access to robust communication technologies--telehealth by and large enables doctors and patients to maintain continuity in care.
However, Professor Walia highlights that there are some reasons to be concerned about telehealth’s future, particularly from an economic perspective. Walia noted that market concentration (when a certain market’s activity is predominantly driven by a few companies) may be a threat to the core value telehealth offers. In theory, when fewer companies perform the majority of market activity, they have more control over price. On the other hand, when market activity is spread out (rather than concentrated in a few actors), the competition can drive down prices, making telehealth affordable and accessible.
“The goal of advancing telehealth is to increase access, and market concentration can make things work backwards. We cannot ignore this, if this is going to be the next big thing. Let's make sure, as policymakers, that we don't allow market concentration to happen,” said Dr. Walia.