Telehealth, also known as telemedicine or virtual care, uses technology to deliver diagnostic and therapeutic health-related services remotely. It’s a fantastic tool that can greatly expand access and lower costs through more efficient and cost-effective delivery.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated telehealth utilization as it presented an opportunity for providers and patients to virtually meet face-to-face without being in the same room.

Benefits of telehealth

The most obvious benefit of a telehealth service is that it enables access to health care providers for populations who may not have had it before. Among other groups, this can include those with mobility issues, the elderly, anyone lacking reliable transportation, and people in more rural locations.

There’s also the comfort and convenience factor of being able to “visit” the doctor from your living room.

One substantial economic benefit is that there are fewer overhead costs for providers because the visits take place remotely. Expensive facilities, medical equipment, and a large staff simply aren’t needed when the provider is talking to the patient over the phone or video chat.

In an ideal world, those cost savings are passed on to the consumer. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.

Threats to telehealth

Government mandates pose the most serious threat to the viability of telehealth. There are two kinds of mandates that pose a threat to telehealth’s potential.

The first is a cost mandate. This would force you to pay the exact same for an in-person doctor’s visit as you would for a virtual doctor’s visit. 

The problem with the cost mandate is that it totally erodes any of the potential cost savings that telehealth could achieve for patients by mandating that it stays in the pockets of hospitals and providers.

One of the main benefits of telehealth is that it is a more cost-effective option for care. You don’t need traditional office equipment. There isn’t check-in staff. You don’t use any of the utilities or other in-person services that come along with in-person care. 

A cost mandate forces consumers to pay for the brick-and-mortar expenses that they simply don’t use during a telehealth visit. Virtual care doesn’t cost the same as in-person care to provide, and those savings should be passed on to the consumer. 

The second is a coverage mandate. This would force you, through your insurance premiums, to cover (i.e. pay for) any healthcare service provided virtually if it’s covered in-person. 

The problem with the coverage mandate is that it ignores some of the very real and practical limitations of telehealth. 

There also places where mandating that your insurance premiums cover telehealth doesn’t make sense because the quality of an in-person visit cannot be matched virtually. 

Dermatology, optometry, physical therapy, patient monitoring, ENT, and phlebotomy are just a handful of examples that could carry dangerous quality implications.

Final word on telehealth

Telehealth’s use must continue to grow in North Carolina without government mandates or interference, particularly in critical areas like primary care and behavioral health. Since providers are spending less money to facilitate virtual appointments, it’s only right that those savings trickle down to the consumer.

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