The need for virtual treatment in the midst of this pandemic is primed to rewrite the rulebook on health for years to come.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent nation-wide lockdowns, telehealth has been rewriting all the rules on the way healthcare has historically been conducted. Virtual health visits shot up 50% in March and are on track to hit 1 billion by the end of 2020, according to a recent report.

Yet overall adoption of telehealth is still lacking, particularly in rural areas where it can be of great benefit once people become aware of how valuable the service truly is.

In my role as a pharmacist, I’ve seen time and again that people often don’t perceive the need to get help until they’re already having problems, and this is where telehealth can really reach those who need it most. 

One of the reasons why I’m so excited about the rise of telehealth is that it can help prevent a lot of headaches, both literally and figuratively, by facilitating frequent virtual checkups, treatment diagnoses, and consultations. The interconnectivity and interoperability that telehealth provides means that healthcare professionals can access all the information they require on a patient in one place while patients can use the platforms from the comfort of their own home where so many have hunkered down in recent months.

But the growth of telehealth isn’t a recent phenomenon. COVID-19 has shone a light on a global market that was already well on the rise, as we shall soon discover. Among its many benefits, widespread telehealth adoption promises positive outcomes for years to come as doctors are able to help more patients and patients become more aware of its benefits and overall convenience of care. While there remain challenges in overall adoption, user satisfaction, and logistics, these are but tiny speed bumps on the telehealth express train that continues to build momentum.

Let’s explore why the need for virtual treatment in the midst of this pandemic is primed to rewrite the rulebook on health for years to come. 

Rapid advances in telehealth

Telehealth meets the demands of patients and practitioners by constantly innovating, creating, and deploying state of the art technological solutions that connect the brightest minds in the field.

According to Healthcare IT News, “Medical technologies like telehealth platforms, data collected from digital thermometers and even 3D printing efforts have been rolled out worldwide to join testing, prevention and tracking efforts,” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of people from nearly every country in the world participated in virtual hackathons to innovate solutions to the global pandemic. From March 26-30 18,000 innovators from 175 countries created 1,560 products in response to the virus during the COVID-19 Global Hackathon.

Among the many thousands of solutions were virtual screenings for COVID-19, translation services for immigrants, awareness and education apps, and platforms where “government agencies, hospitals, and suppliers can quickly and accurately gauge current supply, anticipate future case burden, and forecast upcoming needs.”

In April, Techstars held a Startup Weekend hackathon in the UK to specifically address the pandemic. Participants had 54 hours to develop software-based solutions for the crisis while inspiring others to work together on inclusive solutions.

Thanks to recent innovations, healthcare specialists are now more equipped than ever to meet the needs of their patients, as doctors and physicians can pool their resources, share their findings, and collaborate with one another to provide the most up-to-date quality of care they can provide. For example, many remote primary care providers today have the opportunity to tap into the expertise of distant specialty teams through technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building tools.

Such hub-and-spoke models hold promise for expanding primary care capacity and facilitating appropriate triage of cases to specialists, thereby allowing specialists to focus on patients with advanced stages of disease. 

Startups developing new solutions are also increasingly turning to this space, and many have pivoted to innovate solutions to tackle COVID-19 specifically.

For example, Fruit Street Health built CovidMD — a risk assessment, triage, and telemedicine platform created to keep you informed during the COVID-19 pandemic. MyRx365 opened up its telehealth platform during the pandemic, making it free to physicians and hospitals while Rejuvenan launched a COVID-19 assessment tool that helps patients with preventative care and treatment options, all from home.

And community care-focused Cityblock Health’s tech team are “advancing their capabilities to rapidly identify those at the highest risk of death and serious illness and escalate, track, and coordinate their care,” according to Health Transformer. As the COVID-19 outbreak has rapidly spread and physical distancing measures have been put in place, there has been a spike in demand for virtual care with Teladoc reporting a 50% jump in virtual visits in just one week in March.

In April, online scheduling platform Zocdoc added telehealth appointments to help meet the demand, and startups such as Pager have expanded their telehealth offerings as well.

Legacy health systems, too, have ramped up the use of out-patient care and monitoring technologies to manage patients outside of hospitals. 

All of these innovations show increased promise for the industry that has only grown in demand since the pandemic threatened to cripple healthcare systems the world over.

Increased support from private and public sector during the pandemic

In addition to entrepreneurs looking to innovate in the sector, investors and venture capital firms are also eying this space.

During the pandemic, funding for telemedicine companies surged in the first quarter of 2020 to $788 million, which is more than triple the $220 million telemedicine companies raised in the first quarter of 2019, according to communications and research firm Mercom Capital Group. When compared to first-quarter 2019 data, funding for telemedicine and patient monitoring startups had significant year-over-year increases. Telemedicine startup funding is up by 1818%, and remote patient monitoring platforms have seen a growth of 168%, according to StartUp Health.

As a recent example of startup success, VentureBeat reported in July that AI-powered telehealth platform Gyant had raised $13.6 million to support its interoperability efforts while working with hospitals and providers to “improve workflows and reduce cost.” The telehealth market was already on the rise before COVID-19, and the funding is only expected to increase, with Global Market Insights (GMI) declaring that the “COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the market expansion.”

According to GMI, the global telehealth market is expected to expand “from its current $38.3 billion valuation to $130.5 billion by 2025.”

Beyond the impact of funding, now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the utilization of telehealth has also benefited from additional measures which have simultaneously boosted its appeal for trial and adoption. 

For the first time, healthcare providers are permitted to use telehealth to treat Medicare patients, opening the door for insurance companies and state governments to follow suit. From all of this investment, we are bound to see continued improvements. And with telehealth, there are still improvements that must be made. 

COVID-19 will force telehealth to continue improving 

Traditionally, telehealth experiences for patients have been less than stellar, but some recent studies conducted during times of COVID-19 point to increased patient satisfaction – a key indicator on whether or not telehealth will be massively adopted going forward. 

A Deloitte report from 2018 showed that 53 percent of patients who used virtual care visits said they did not think the provider they met was as knowledgeable or professional as someone in an in-person visit. 

And a survey conducted by J.D. Power in 2019 showed that nearly half of all respondents believed the quality of care received in a telehealth session was lower than that of a doctor’s office visit, while only 6.2% perceived the quality to be higher, and 45.1% believed it to be the same. 

While challenges remain, we can’t overlook the promise of telehealth, and we’re already starting to see satisfaction levels improving among both patients and practitioners.

Last year, a study by Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that 68 percent of telehealth patients “rated their visit a nine or a 10 on a 10-point satisfaction scale,” while “most patients and clinicians perceived no loss of communication in virtual video visits compared with office visits.”

And more recently, Becker’s Hospital Review reported in June, 2020, “Sixty-seven percent of patients who participated in a video or phone visit said the visit was ‘good/better’ than traditional in-person appointments, with 96 percent of the participants saying they were ‘somewhat/very satisfied with medical care’ they received.” In April, RepuGen conducted a survey whose preliminary results showed a higher patient satisfaction with telemedicine over in-office visits when it came to primary and urgent care for patients.

With a positive change to attitudes surrounding telehealth, its growing adoption will empower people to embrace the best version of themselves.

Said Dr. Bob Murry, chief medical information officer at telehealth-platform provider NextGen Healthcare, in an earlier interview with CNBC, “It’s a profound change, and it’s faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”