Photo: Sean Mehra
The COVID-19 public health emergency may be coming to an end in May. The boost the pandemic gave telemedicine into the mainstream cannot be understated.
But what’s next for virtual care? And what about the blossoming trend of virtual-first hybrid care?
Healthcare IT News sat down with Sean Mehra, CEO and cofounder of HealthTap, a virtual-first urgent care and primary care clinic.
Mehra discusses whether virtual-first is the way to go, what the impending end of the public health emergency means for virtual care, how patients implementing technology into their healthcare routines can help, and where telehealth will be in five and 10 years.
Q. Many telemedicine professionals as well as a good number of healthcare providers suggest that as healthcare evolves post-pandemic, virtual-first is the way to go. Why do you feel virtual-first makes sense?
A. Even without the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual-first is the logical initial step for all non-emergency medical issues. Defaulting to in-person visits takes up a lot more time and money for both patients and doctors. So, it’s simply the most efficient allocation and utilization of scarce resources – doctor time, patient time and money.
This is important because, unfortunately, a lot of people in the United States are putting off care because of their financial circumstances or scheduling constraints.
For example, “Should I visit my doctor and miss out on a day’s wages and simply disrupt my personal plans and responsibilities, or should I wait until a more convenient time?” As we saw during the pandemic, delaying care can have dire results, and virtual-first all but solves the issue.
Research shows that people live longer, healthier lives when they maintain a relationship with a primary care doctor. That’s because it’s easier for the doctor to observe patterns in a patient’s health holistically over time.
Keeping up that relationship and maintaining timely and frequent communication to catch and manage issues early before they become worse is a lot easier when doctors and patients are able to do so conveniently, using the modern technology we have at our disposal.
Lastly, telemedicine is a more cost-efficient solution for providers since they no longer need to consider the overhead of operating a physical site of care. Those savings can be passed directly to the 38% of Americans who avoid managing their health due to cost.
Q. What does the impending end of the COVID-19 public health emergency mean for virtual care?
A. The federal emergency declaration for COVID-19 was always going to go away eventually. The fact that telemedicine hasn’t been permanently enshrined into law yet is just a function of our democracy. There’s bipartisan support for the issue, it’s in the queue, and it will happen.
In the meantime, people got comfortable with telemedicine during the pandemic. It’s an expected part of the healthcare experience now.
U.S. laws regarding telemedicine need to evolve to make it sustainable for people in the long term. But the fact is, this is going to be the main way that people communicate with their doctors for most common health issues, to address ongoing care and for managing chronic conditions.
Q. You suggest people are taking a more motivated approach to healthcare by implementing tech into their healthcare routines. Did the pandemic play a big part in this? And what does this ultimately mean for telehealth?
A. I don’t think people are any more motivated than they ever were to proactively manage their health. In fact, the contrary is true. Humans have always and continue to avoid proactive and preventive healthcare because it’s stressful, time-consuming and lacks immediate reward – the payoff for living healthy is measured in decades.
That said, the pandemic forced people to become exposed to telemedicine and they’ve become much more aware of its benefits as a result. They’ve experienced the convenience and they know now that they can get the same or similar level of care.
Thus, we’ve reached a tipping point. Like most innovative technologies, once consumers at large have been exposed to a superior solution, market forces often drive that solution quickly toward mass adoption and ubiquity.
Q. Telehealth seems to be on its way to becoming a preferred method of healthcare. Where do you see telehealth in five years and in 10 years?
A. We’re going to see three big shifts on the horizon. First, a shift toward telemedicine becoming the default mode for care. To observe a pattern from history, recall that we came up with the word “e-commerce” to refer to shopping that was done online; “commerce” was what we did in person.
Now, e-commerce is what we actually mean – as a default – when we talk about buying anything. The notion of telemedicine versus medicine will be similar. “Virtual care” will become synonymous with “care,” and the in-person experience will become the exception rather than the default.
Second, telemedicine will become better integrated with local care. Today, most telemedicine experiences are quite disjointed from in-person care options, unless it’s virtual care that’s being offered as an add-on to an existing in-person clinic. In the future, telemedicine providers will enable more seamless hand-offs to and from local clinics, hospitals and specialists.
Lastly, we’ll see telemedicine continue to expand the scope of what is treatable and manageable remotely. As more convenient service options – such as of at-home testing, medication/supply delivery, at-home monitoring, and at-home clinician visits – become available and accessible, the degree to which a doctor can be helpful virtually without requiring the patient to travel to a physical site of care will make the healthcare experience as convenient and efficient as ever.
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