Telehealth – Delivering Health Care Safely during COVID-19 and into the Future

Jiann-Ping Hsu College Of Public Health

You just noticed a rash on your skin. You’d like to get a doctor’s opinion, so you reach for your computer to schedule a telehealth visit. In recent months, this scenario has become commonplace. COVID-19 has launched telehealth into mainstream health care delivery as patient and provider willingness to use telehealth has dramatically increased following the pandemic. Telehealth allows patients to receive medical treatment without being physically present with their provider, using either phone or video conferencing technologies. The pandemic has forced many providers to adopt telehealth to eliminate patient, provider and staff exposures that are associated with traditional face-to-face visits, and to assure the financial viability of their organizations as they adapt to pandemic-focused fears of their patients. This increased and widespread adoption of telehealth has been valuable in ensuring the continuity of care, especially for vulnerable and high-risk patients.

Advances in technology and the widespread availability of internet-enabled devices have created an environment where virtual health care can thrive. Further, there is a significant proportion of the population that embraces the utilization of technology and virtual communication, having experienced the availability of SMART devices for most of their lives. This creates a consumer base that now expects and demands virtual accessibility to health care services in addition to in-person options, mirroring the evolution of consumer expectations being witnessed across several sectors, including higher education.

Even though it is not expected to completely eliminate face-to-face interaction, the pandemic has proven that there is a place for this mode of health care delivery along the continuum of care. To aid in anchoring telehealth within the system of care, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), through the CARES Act, has expanded coverage for telehealth services for the Medicare population and for safety net providers including Rural Health Clinics, Federally Qualified Health Centers and others. Nationwide, health care providers and plans are embracing the promise of telehealth and have also increased investments in telehealth.

Telehealth has proven to be an essential service – even in rural areas. Just as in our personal lives we rarely return to previous levels of technology once we advance, so is true in health care delivery.

— Bettye A. Apenteng, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of Health Policy and Mgmt.; Linda Kimsey, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of Health Policy and Mgmt.; Samuel T. Opoku, MBChB, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of Health Policy and Mgmt.; Angie Peden, MPH, Asst. Director, Center for Public Health Practice and Research; Charles F. Owens, MSA, Director, Center for Public Health Practice and Research; William Mase, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Dept. of Health Policy and Mgmt.