What we learned from COVID: Telehealth is here to stay

By Representative Kevin Hern for The Hill

When the dust settles and COVID-19 is finally behind us, there are many aspects of this “new normal” that I will not miss, but there’s a lot that I hope sticks around, like valuable time at home with my family and creative ways to stay connected virtually.

As a society, though, our most important lasting benefit will be the telehealth services that have rapidly expanded over the last five months.

Telehealth expansion began this spring out of necessity to protect doctors and patients alike from contracting COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. The ability to keep physical distance between the sick and their medical caregivers protected all parties from spreading the virus further while allowing patients to have regular contact and care from their doctors and nurses.

As a result of telehealth expansion, rural communities have higher access to quality care than before, when someone might have to drive for hours to get to the nearest hospital.

Especially with the dangers that COVID-19 presents to the elderly and immunocompromised, telehealth allows for at-risk patients to remain at home instead of traveling to hospitals or doctors’ offices, where there’s a higher risk of coming into contact with an infected person. Pre-COVID, telehealth was rare; now, it’s an essential service that Americans rely on.

As a businessman for more than 30 years, I’m always looking to find weaknesses in my operation, things that can be improved and problems to solve. I’ve taken that mindset with me to Congress, where our government is full of broken systems and blind spots. Telehealth is one of those rare situations that has a clear solution.

It’s not news for anyone to learn that government is slow to act, generally the last segment of society to adopt new trends and technologies.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been in contact with local medical professionals, health care providers, patients, and hospital leaders. Most ask for the same thing: telehealth expansion post-COVID. Generally, it’s the top issue. While it’s not a cure-all, telehealth services should be a permanent fixture of our health care system. The benefits to rural and at-risk communities will extend far beyond the fallout of COVID-19.

The value add to rural communities is considerable. With high-quality care accessible via video chat or over the phone, rural residents don’t have to rely on distant hospitals and long trips to get the care they need. Innovative technologies in health care help reduce costs while increasing access and quality – three of the most important factors.

Access to virtual mental health services has had an incredibly positive impact over the last several months. The Center for Innovation in Medicare Advantage found that telehealth was particularly useful for behavioral health, which grew faster than other services during COVID-19. They also found that access to telehealth services drastically reduced the rate of no-shows for appointments.

Mental health is a top concern for many medical professionals throughout the COVID-19 crisis, as the shutdowns are extended much longer than the initial two weeks we were promised in March. Virtual appointments allow for patients to have immediate access when they need it.

To make the push for telehealth even more attractive, it’s a strongly bipartisan issue. There’s no fight about the benefits of telehealth – its benefits are crystal clear. Earlier this summer, I joined Democrat Rep. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) to jointly introduce the Protect Telehealth Services Act. This bill codifies Medicare reimbursements for telehealth services and removes restrictions on who can access telehealth services.

President Trump has already taken great steps to expand telehealth services. In coordination with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials, the Trump administration is working to establish new payment models and innovative practices to transform health care on a broader scale.

Many of the necessary reforms are supported, and already in place via short-term action, by President Trump and HHS Secretary Alex Azar. What we need is congressional action to make these emergency exceptions permanent.

COVID-19 has taught us many important lessons as a nation, but the lasting benefit of telehealth is one that will propel us forward and improve our society.