By Mark Dwyer
Three years ago, I wrote an article for the September 2017 issue of AnswerStat titled Video-Based Doctor Visits. At the time, I proposed video-based doctor visits as a solution to address the shortages of primary care physicians. Little did I know it foreshadowed a much greater need for virtual visits in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 made scheduling face-to-face doctor visits nearly impossible.
Not only has the pandemic increased the need for video-visits, but our aging population and a declining supply of primary care physicians have also increased our healthcare shortfalls. According to the updated 2020 projection from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), by 2033, the United States will have a shortage of as many as 54,100 to 139,000 physicians, with primary care representing between 21,400 to 55,200 physicians.
In many areas of the country, there are not enough primary care physicians to handle the patients physically able to come into an office setting. However, that is not the only concern resulting from the shortage. An estimated two to four million people need doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers to make house calls. Unfortunately, the number of physicians and health practitioners who make house calls has also significantly decreased over the years. According to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), telehealth is especially critical in rural and other remote areas that lack sufficient healthcare services.
Telehealth to the Rescue
A recent HHS report found that virtual visits accounted for over 43 percent of Medicare fee-for-service primary care visits in April 2020. That compared with far less than 0.1 percent in February 2020. The HHS reported that virtual visits continued to be frequent even after in-person primary care visits resumed in May of 2020. The continued use of virtual visits indicates that they are likely to be a more permanent part of the healthcare delivery system.
Telehealth visit solutions have the power to change the way we provide and receive healthcare for the better.
An article in Becker’s Hospital Review, January 20, 2021, further supported telehealth’s permanence. “We have been talking about telehealth for nearly thirty years, and in the year 2020 especially, the need for virtual health services has escalated globally.”
The recent actions of Amazon bear this out. Another article in Becker’s Health IT on March 17, 2021, stated, “Amazon is launching its virtual medical service Amazon Care for its employees in all fifty states and Washington, D.C., this summer, with plans to expand the offering to other employers later this year.” Amazon would not pursue virtual visits if they did not believe they were here to stay and sure to be profitable.
A McKinsey’s survey in April 2020 found consumer adoption of telehealth has skyrocketed, with almost 70 percent of in-person visits canceled in the United States. Canceling in-person visits has helped in decreasing the transmission rate of COVID-19 and limiting exposure to patients. Patients are rapidly transitioning to telehealth, with 76 percent of survey respondents suggesting that they were highly or moderately likely to use telehealth going forward.
According to a Mayo Clinic article on May 13, 2020, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, video technology helped doctors connect with people in rural locations. More than half of U.S. hospitals and medical centers now use telehealth in some way. The Mayo Clinic found that most people report a positive experience with online visits.
Mayo further identified that many people also say the real-time consultation can be just as effective as an in-office visit. In addition, while social distancing remains needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, video visits for medical care offer a way to access timely care without leaving home.
The Call Center’s Role
So how can the call center play a vital role in offering telehealth services?
Triage call centers focus on getting patients “the right care—at the right time—at the right place.” Adding virtual visits as a triage endpoint for immediate, real-time appointments expands the call center’s services while providing enhanced customer service. The most successful organizations that offer triage call centers will be those with a strategy to integrate virtual visits. Telehealth benefits include convenience, access to care, better patient outcomes, and a more efficient healthcare system.
Finally, during his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Mr. Becerra indicated his support for permanent telehealth expansions. According to a February 25, 2021 article in Politico, Mr. Becerra said he wants to boost technology accessibility and is committed to permanently expanding payment policies that have increased virtual health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about implementing a telehealth program or integrating it with your existing efforts, reference telehealth.hhs.gov/providers/getting-started.
Mark Dwyer is a thirty-three-year veteran of the healthcare call center industry and the COO at LVM Systems. LVM provides healthcare call center solutions that support nurse triage, disease management, behavioral health intake, patient transfer, and referral/marketing services, including consumer-centered web products.