What does it mean to provide primary care during a global pandemic? How does technology shape healthcare and vice versa? In response to the coronavirus outbreak, many clinics have begun offering telehealth services. In a telehealth visit, a healthcare provider sees patients either over the phone or via secure video chat. Patients can see a provider without leaving home; sometimes the provider is even in their own home. Now that patients have experienced telehealth as an option, what will primary care look like after the pandemic?
According to NHS executive director Steve Knutson, telehealth is here to stay. “Clinics were on a trajectory toward embracing telehealth before anyone had even heard of COVID-19,” Knutson says. In rural areas, for example, many residents live far away from the nearest clinic and already rely on telehealth for some kinds of visits. Similarly, some types of services, such as psychiatry, aren’t widely available for low-income patients. Neighborhood HealthSource began offering telepsychiatry services in 2019 as part of our behavioral health program, since few psychiatrists in the area provided the kind of accessible, affordable care our patients need.
Before COVID-19, one of the main barriers to expanding telehealth, Knutson explains, was that insurance companies didn’t allow providers to bill telehealth visits the same as in-clinics. This meant the clinic wasn’t reimbursed by insurance for telehealth visits. That has changed as more clinics and hospitals seek to treat patients remotely in the time of COVID-19.
“Now that telehealth is necessary to provide safe care during this uncertain time, insurance companies are changing their tune,” Knutson explains. With telehealth visits now being reimbursed by insurers, clinics are able to offer more types of services remotely.
Telehealth at Neighborhood HealthSource
Behavioral health services were among the first to be offered via telehealth at Neighborhood HealthSource, back in March. We’ve since expanded to offer a wide variety of primary care services remotely. Patients can now see a provider for birth control consults, chronic disease and medication management, common illnesses such as cold and flu, and more, without a trip to the clinic.
The benefits of telehealth extend beyond the ability to stay home in a pandemic. It can be a more accessible option for patients with limited mobility, who face barriers to transportation, or whose schedules make it difficult to come into the clinic.
“I anticipate seeing 30-40% of our patients via telehealth in the future, after the pandemic,” Knutson says. “Now that the insurance companies have changed their policy, I think patients are going to continue to demand this type of service.”