Editor's note: Jason Resendez is a board member of Consumers for Quality Care and a healthcare advocate.
Telehealth has been a literal life saver during the pandemic. Not only did it help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of physical interactions between people in waiting and exam rooms, it also increased the continuity of care and expanded access to health services for millions of Americans, particularly those living in rural and underserved areas.
The recent infrastructure proposal by the Biden administration and Congress would allocate $65 billion to expanding broadband, laying the foundation needed to make telehealth services more widely available to the communities that crucially need it.
Unfortunately, some insurers are making it harder to access this increasingly important service by rolling back coverage, even as COVID-19 cases are back on the rise. At a time when the healthcare system should be doing everything it can to close longstanding health equity gaps, it's time for insurers, policymakers and health systems to embrace telehealth as an integral part of the future of healthcare.
Since the start of the pandemic, the use of telehealth has increased dramatically. In April 2020, the number of private insurance telehealth claims increased by more than 8,000% from a year prior. While many Americans turned to telehealth out of necessity due to social distancing guidelines, it has become a treatment option of choice. Recent research from ALG Research and Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of Consumers for Quality Care (CQC) shows that 70% of Americans who have used telehealth are likely to continue using it even after the pandemic ends.
Telehealth is clearly here to stay, and for good reason. It increases the continuity of care by providing access outside of normal clinic hours, reducing the burdens of transportation and limiting the impact of provider shortages in rural or underserved communities. It also provides an option for people who are immunocompromised or cannot travel easily to access the care they need.
The convenience of telehealth helped 8-year-old Zain Jackson, who has cerebral palsy, take her first steps, even though her in-person physical therapy was suspended due to COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, Zain's mother, Jozmin, thought her daughter would lose all her progress, but telehealth ensured that didn't happen by allowing her physical therapist to guide them through sessions via webcam.
Americans struggling with mental health also stand to benefit tremendously from telehealth. Mental health conditions are the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis. This is particularly important because of the significant gaps in mental health care access: more than 60% of rural Americans live in designated mental health provider shortage areas. And, since stigmas around mental health unfortunately remain in our society, those who may feel uncomfortable seeking professional help in person have a more private way to get the care they need with telehealth.
The pandemic put a spotlight on the longstanding racial inequities that exist in our health system — inequities that enabled COVID-19 to kill people of color with alarming precision.
Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma, obesity and Alzheimer's occur at higher rates in people of color when compared to White Americans. A lack of access to quality care contributes to these disparities, since people of color are more likely to live in underserved communities with fewer healthcare providers and transportation options. Telehealth can help address these disparities by allowing people in underserved communities the opportunity to get the care they need from the right provider, regardless of where they live. This is especially true now that the Biden administration is making big investments in expanding access to high-speed broadband internet coverage, an essential ingredient to making telehealth solutions more widely accessible.
The pandemic may have brought telehealth to the forefront, but its benefits have the potential to change our healthcare system for the better well beyond COVID-19.
Congress should make these critical investments now for the needed improvements to our nation's broadband network to ensure every American has access to telehealth, regardless of where they live. But it is also imperative that insurers commit to maintaining telehealth coverage benefits once the pandemic ends so Americans have every shot possible for a healthier life.