I think we can all agree that navigating COVID-19 has been a bit of a nightmare for everyone, both professionally and personally. Our frontline workers have faced unimaginable difficulties, the general population has been largely socially distanced since March, and we’ve had to determine how to best serve our most at-risk populations without risking their lives in the process. 

Yet, if I had to find a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the global pandemic has opened our eyes to glaring weaknesses in the healthcare industry that can no longer be ignored. 

One such weakness? The slow adoption of telehealth.

Telehealth is by no means a novel idea; it’s one that has been waiting on the sidelines for its opportunity to transform the healthcare sector. But the pandemic has given it a chance to shine, serving as a saving grace for patients of long-term care facilities in particular, who are an especially vulnerable population in the face of the global pandemic. 

If one thing has been made clear this year, it’s that telehealth is no longer a convenience —  it’s the necessary next-step to push healthcare forward.

Telehealth as a Preventative Measure

Vulnerable patient groups like ethnic minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and senior citizens have long struggled to find safe access to quality healthcare. One out of every five elderly patients experiences ageism in the healthcare sector, which leaves them at risk for developing new health problems or worsening their existing conditions. 

Telemedicine is not a magic bullet, but it is a meaningful solution for ensuring vulnerable patient groups receive the same level of care as anyone else, which is only possible if we begin transitioning to a more patient-centered model of care.

Healthcare providers can better assist with routine medical matters without requiring patients and residents to travel to another facility, which is significant from an efficiency perspective. Meanwhile, patients who have underlying medical conditions, a fear of venturing outside, or severe physical limitations are able to gain access to a higher quality of healthcare than they otherwise would be able to receive.

Telemedicine is already proving to be a blessing during the pandemic. Skilled nursing staff can complete intake and discharge administrative functions without risking exposure to themselves or their patients. Routine care and preventative checkups are finally being scheduled in a semi-routine fashion once again thanks to telehealth and remote healthcare options.

Short-term studies have already revealed major benefits of telehealth and remote treatment opportunities. The decreased risk of exposure has already proven instrumental in flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases across the country, which is even more important within skilled nursing facilities and other senior care centers. Rather than insisting on face-to-face, or rather mask-to-mask, interactions with potential carriers, telehealth options provide a viable way for doctors and nurses to perform vital examinations.

Aside from reducing the infection rate probability related to the epidemic, other potentially deadly ailments are also being treated in a timely manner. Telehealth is now being recognized as a valuable part of preventative care programs, helping to increase the survival rate of patients and residents who suffer from strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes, among others. As a result, Congress declared in early 2020 that telehealth services will be covered for Medicare patients.

Telehealth Helps Avoid Unnecessary Hospitalizations

Around 30 percent of emergency room visits among patients with chronic conditions are avoidable. This includes ailments such as asthma, heart failure, and hypertension, but also conditions involving mental health and substance abuse as well. This is a real and expensive problem in the United States, costing the industry around $8.3 billion per year. Patients and hospitals alike can agree that unnecessary trips to the hospital must be reduced. This is what telemedicine is working to accomplish

Healthcare practitioners don’t want to refer patients to a hospital if there is no acute medical condition present, especially so as not to increase their exposure as patients with COVID continue to fill up beds in the ICU. Yet, they still need to have access to healthcare. Telehealth has helped many patients and residents survive the crisis thus far. Skilled nursing facilities are among the major proponents of providers offering telehealth services. 

Caring for residents who make up the most at-risk population in the United States demands that SNFs prioritize virtual care. Not only can the nursing staff quickly assess conditions of multiple patients and provide instant feedback, but they can also consult with other healthcare professionals without having to remove the resident from their room. 

The Future of Telemedicine

Telehealth services have proven invaluable during the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has shown that virtual care options should be a part of patient care moving forward as well. The ease-of-use makes telemedicine a free and preferred method for patients of all ages and demographic levels. The low investment and overhead costs make telemedicine appealing to healthcare providers who no longer have to plan hours of travel into their daily or weekly schedules.

Telehealth practices are cost effective and practical for controlling the spread of disease. However, these highly respectable reasons are not even the most compelling drivers of continued use. The convenience factor is undeniable. Patients and healthcare providers can both agree that virtual appointments are a fantastic way to connect and review general healthcare concerns.

Healthcare executives must already start planning for a post-pandemic telehealth strategy. Telemedicine will continue to save the healthcare sector money, increase the accuracy of diagnoses and treatment options, and will help usher in a more patient-centered care model. But healthcare facilities and SNFs must dive deeper into this transformative technology to discover what works for their specific residents and operations. Telehealth is not a one-size-fits-all solution to healthcare; it needs to be customized for every practice.

Once regarded as a convenient alternative to in-person care, telehealth has become more than its initial reputation. It’s taken a global pandemic to see this technology for what it is — critical to patient care and, as a result, positioned to set the standard for healthcare now and into the future.