The pandemic has transformed a lot of things, including the way many people approach doctor visits. When the COVID-19 crisis first started, most medical offices experienced a significant drop in the number of in-person appointments. The cancelations were led by patients who feared exposure to the virus. The result was a massive transformation in the telehealth market – one that will impact post-pandemic healthcare for years to come.
Telemedicine Market Takes Off
Prior to the pandemic, the telemedicine market was already growing in the United States. According to surveys by the American Medical Association, telehealth visits doubled between 2016 and 2019, increasing from 14 percent to 28 percent.
The concerns over the coronavirus put the telemedicine market to the test. A study in JAMA Network Open found that use of in-person medical services dropped by 23 percent in March 2020 and 52 percent in April 2020, and in that same time frame, telemedicine services grew by more than 1,000 percent in March and more than 4,000 percent the following month.
Recognizing the need, American Family Care began promoting the use of the AFC/Telecare portal in the early weeks of the pandemic. This allowed medical providers in the American Family nationwide network of healthcare clinics to provide virtual visits to patients, including assessment/screening of COVID-19 symptoms or any other healthcare problems, such as acute illnesses and trauma, helping with managing chronic illness, and prescription medication as needed, all from the safety of their home.
“We quickly realized the benefits telehealth provided to our patients and AFC franchisees, so we ramped up our platform,” says Sean Hart, Vice President of Sales and Development at American Family Care. “It really afforded us an opportunity to continue taking care of our patients in a safe way.”
A Look Back and Ahead
Telemedicine is not new. In fact, it has a long, rich history. Research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) traces it back to an 1879 Lancet article suggesting telephones should be used to reduce office visits.
The pandemic has shed light on the many benefits of telehealth — from access and availability for patients to a new revenue stream for the industry. For example, AFC’s pivot toward the telemedicine market allowed franchisees to keep established patients and opened opportunities to increase the number of new patients — which means a long-term business benefit. The decision boosted patient visits to record numbers during a time when people were nervous about visiting physicians in person.
As an example, when concerns about COVID-19 began to take a strong hold on the economy, patient visits to AFC clinics declined 71 percent initially, but, thanks to the innovation and forward-thinking of franchise leaders, patient visits to AFC skyrocketed up more than 60 percent in a year-over-year comparison.
Because of the early adoption of the telehealth portal, AFC gave franchisees a major advantage over independently owned practices that have not had a virtual platform in place.
While many healthcare providers might be tempted to get back to business as usual, it is becoming clear telemedicine is here to stay.
- According to a recent survey, 83 percent of patients expect to use virtual appointments after the pandemic resolves.
- Another survey finds 20 percent of patients would switch doctors if their current doctor doesn’t offer a telehealth option.
“Telehealth is here to stay,” adds Hart. “More patients got a taste of it during the pandemic and want the option to use it. Used correctly, telehealth is a great avenue for care.”
Changes in Regulations
Most states took action to expedite the expansion of the telehealth market, including changing Medicaid and state-regulated health plan requirements to provide coverage equivalent to in-person service and removing any geographic barriers, and temporarily allowing audio-only as well as audio-video services to telemedicine visits. States also established payment for virtual visits to be on par with in-person services and, in some cases, suspended deductibles and copayments for telehealth.
Policies related to the telemedicine market are also advancing at the federal level. Medicare restrictions have been lifted on a wide range of services and delivery technologies. Telehealth services are now covered for new and existing patients. And green-lighted two-way real-time audio-video technology has been expanded to include smartphones as well as audio-only communication, something that was not allowed in the past.
“As we move past the pandemic, we at AFC don’t consider telehealth to be a replacement for in-person care, but rather a supplement,” suggests Hart.
While the future of the telehealth market is bright, the need for in-person visits remains, such as when someone needs a lab test or a vaccine. Telehealth works for follow-up visits, medication instructions, and for those patients who live in rural areas where healthcare is not as readily available or accessible.
On the topic of accessibility, urgent care clinics, such as AFC, were already offering extended weekday hours and weekend visits to fill a gap left by primary care physicians. The addition of telehealth takes accessibility to a new level — fulfilling modern patient demands to have access to healthcare 24/7.
Another reason for the continuation of in-person visits ties into the digital divide in this country. Not everyone has equal access to technology. Many Americans still do not have a smartphone or a computer, let alone broadband internet.
“Whether in-person or virtual, AFC remains a resource for anyone who needs quality affordable and easily accessible healthcare,” adds Hart.” And, thanks to the rapid expansion of our brand, we are able to bring our services to more people across the country as well as the opportunity for aspiring healthcare entrepreneurs to become part of the healthcare solution.”
Click here to learn more about the franchise opportunities available at American Family Care.