Articles | April 14, 2020

COVID-19 Drives Digital Health Trends

The COVID-19 crisis continues to change the way individuals access healthcare. With preventive health and elective procedures delayed or cancelled, more patients than ever before are turning to virtual care. 

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The pandemic is accelerating acceptance of remote care

The crisis has limited in-person medical treatment to testing and treatment of the virus and non-COVID emergency care. Individuals with non-urgent needs tend to avoid hospitals and physicians’ offices for fear of potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

As a result, providers are encouraging patients to use telemedicine. Demand for virtual care increased dramatically since the onset of the crisis, with Teladoc reporting a 50 percent jump in virtual medical visits during a one-week period in mid-March, amounting to more than 15,000 visits per day. Acknowledging the new importance of telemedicine, the Department of Health and Human Services announced on March 17 that it would use its discretion and waive potential penalties against providers communicating with individuals using methods not complying fully with HIPAA. (To learn more, see Segal’s analysis, Group Health Plans and COVID-19: What You Need to Know.)

Beyond providers, other major players in the healthcare industry have also thrown their weight behind remote care. Medicare expanded the availability of telehealth services when the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 became law on March 6. The Act ensures Medicare no longer limits telehealth coverage to rural areas, while also allowing beneficiaries to access telehealth from their homes (or other community settings), and permitting the use of smartphones. (To learn more, see Segal’s analysis of the Act.)

On March 6, Aetna waived member cost sharing for 90 days for any covered telemedicine visits. On March 20, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association declared its network of 36 independent BCBS plans was also waiving telehealth services cost sharing for fully insured members. Other insurers announced similar expansions.

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Investment in digital health tools continues to grow

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, healthcare attracted money from private equity and venture capital firms, two types of entities known for investing in disruption and paradigm shifts. In 2018 and 2019, investment in digital health startups totaled more than $18 billion across 1,300 deals. Among the most funded areas were telemedicine, data analysis, and mobile health apps that focus on everything from well-being to care delivery.

In the age of coronavirus, accessing healthcare by digital means plays an important role in helping patients, as evidenced by the following examples:

  • Digital health firms have provided testing kits for COVID-19, using remote monitoring to manage and track the virus, and enabling self-reporting. Buoy Health, an artificial intelligence platform, offers an interactive, online tool that assesses COVID-19 symptoms and recommends next steps for care. Cigna, Express Scripts, and the state of Massachusetts have each announced they will offer the tool at no cost to members or state residents.
  • On March 18, UnitedHealthcare expanded access to its digital care platform. The platform includes a symptom checker that guides members to appropriate services. Other investments in health technology include offering virtual chronic and primary care, using avatars to manage care and prevent loneliness, and training clinicians.
  • Mental health platforms are experiencing a surge in use. Employees are accessing online tools to manage stress and anxiety. Mental health apps connect users to behavioral health professionals for chat and video-based sessions. Plan sponsors are improving access to mental health and substance use disorder benefits to promote mental well-being.

As digital health tools take center stage, other health technologies will likely receive more attention. This includes expanding the use of electronic health records and enabling data sharing across health systems. We can also expect to see wider use of digital tools for behavioral healthcare and chronic care management.

Accelerating healthcare’s digital transformation

The coronavirus is a catalyst for change. Despite concerns surrounding security and privacy concerns, regulations, and infrastructure, COVID-19 confirms the need for virtual care.

As providers build capacity to expand telehealth services, we will learn more about what’s working and what isn’t, as well as best practices for virtual visit contracting and billing. We will also have a better understanding of the acceptance of and demand for digital care solutions. When the crisis subsides, if policies and regulations continue to stay flexible, telehealth will increase access to care for vulnerable populations. It will also free up health systems’ ability to manage critical care during a crisis.

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