Telehealth has soared in popularity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, insurers are increasingly willing to cover these services, making them more accessible for people who need care.
Although telehealth is certainly convenient, is it more cost effective than traditional healthcare? Are patients getting enough value out of telehealth to justify switching over to this model when possible? Let’s take a look.
The Difference Between Traditional Healthcare and Telehealth
Telehealth is essentially remote healthcare. It can be administered via phone, video chat, and email. Healthcare providers can consult with patients all over the world without requiring them to travel. This was essential during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce the spread of illness, but it has remained popular ever since.
Traditional health, of course, is location dependent. The patient must travel to an office to visit the doctor for diagnosis and treatment. During an office visit, the patient will consult with the doctor and might receive a physical exam or other tests and treatments in addition to a discussion with their provider.
Obviously, there are pros and cons to each approach. Here’s how telehealth and traditional care stack up to one another.
Accessibility and Convenience
When it comes to accessibility and convenience, there’s absolutely no contest: telehealth wins every time. As long as they have reliable access to the internet and phone, patients can get telehealth services from various healthcare providers, from nurses to specialists. This reduces travel times and transportation costs, making telehealth much more accessible than traditional healthcare.
The accessibility boost of telehealth has been especially important for people who live in rural areas, far away from most healthcare facilities. It is also important for people who do not have access to reliable transportation. Some people who cannot easily reach medical facilities simply avoid going to the doctor for as long as possible, which can make problems much worse and leads to poorer health outcomes.
Telehealth can also make it possible for people to consult with specialists without needing to travel long distances. While in-person diagnosis is sometimes needed, specialist care does not always require an office visit, especially if the patient simply needs ongoing monitoring.
Local urgent care services, using the traditional model, are important for patient accessibility and convenience, reducing the number of trips to the emergency room people need to make. However, telehealth can help reduce wait times at these facilities by providing basic triage over the phone and helping people understand where they should go to get traditional healthcare.
Cost Comparisons: Expense and Value
There’s no question that telehealth can help to reduce skyrocketing costs. When patients are “seen” via telehealth, staffing requirements are reduced and the amount of office space and equipment needed is minimal.
Traditional healthcare requires expensive office space, medical equipment, and other services that add to the clinic’s overhead. These expenses mean that appointments are more expensive than telehealth appointments. Additionally, patients have to spend money on transportation costs and even parking.
Now that insurance companies have seen the benefits of investing in telehealth, many of these services are covered, making them just as cost-effective as in-person visits. From a cost standpoint, everyone wins with telehealth.
Quality of Care: How Does Telehealth Stack Up?
The million-dollar question, of course, is this: does the quality of care hold up with telehealth?
Well, it depends. Quality of care increases when people are proactive and seek out telehealth services for preventative care and early symptoms. However, if telehealth services are not paired with a robust traditional healthcare system, then overall quality of care might suffer. Some people also prefer the relationships they can build with providers in person, which can affect their healthcare experience.
Telehealth is helping to increase personalization in medicine, which can lead to better overall care and outcomes. Minimizing in-person visits can also reduce unnecessary procedures. Remote monitoring through wearables and other technology solutions can help people stay independent and maintain their quality of life.
In a cost-benefit analysis, telehealth makes a lot of sense for preventative care, triage, and monitoring, especially in light of the ongoing doctor and nurse shortage. For complex diagnostics, treatment, and other health issues, however, it cannot replace traditional medicine.
A Hybrid System is Key
Obviously, telehealth can’t fully replace traditional healthcare services. Patients with tricky health conditions will require in-person diagnostic exams and tests. People will still need blood tests, surgery, and treatments. Hospitalization will continue to be a critical part of our healthcare system.
With that said, it’s clear that shifting toward telehealth for simple diagnostics, basic triage, ongoing monitoring, mental healthcare, and other services that don’t require providers and patients to be in the same physical space will benefit everyone. There’s simply no need for people to travel long distances for an appointment that could easily take place over the phone.
Telehealth is revolutionizing a system that has long been inconvenient and reactive in nature. By delivering more of our healthcare remotely, we’re likely to see a growing emphasis on proactive, preventative care and early intervention, which should help to improve outcomes at a reduced cost.