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2022 Telehealth Outlook: A Clear Path Ahead for Virtual Care

mental healthomnichannelhealthcareTelehealthForecastMeMD NewsIndustry News • 6 min read • Dec 7, 2021 12:00:00 AM • Written by: Bill Goodwin

It’s been nearly two years since COVID-19 began its sweep across the globe. The pandemic has disrupted and changed nearly every aspect of life – including (and especially) healthcare. Virtual care, for example, has become an essential part of healthcare delivery.

Early in the pandemic, telehealth utilization skyrocketed, as virtual care was a safe way to access necessary care. Popularity soared, too, as more people experienced the convenience and ease of connecting with a provider online. Today, virtual care has taken its place as a mainstay of the U.S. healthcare system:

A July 2021 report from McKinsey & Co. shows that telehealth use has stabilized at levels 38 times higher than before the pandemic.

More than ever before, today’s employers are recognizing the benefits of telehealth, not only as a way to curb rising medical costs and improve the bottom line, but also to meet the demands of employees who want more control over their healthcare.

MeMD, a part of the Walmart Health family, shares its outlook for telehealth in 2022 in areas including value-based care, mental health, provider shortages, transparency and more.

Telehealth Will Enhance Value-Based Care

As U.S. healthcare continues its shift toward value-based care, telehealth will assume a central role as a high-touch, low-cost method for managing populations. Virtual care provides another touchpoint between providers and patients – one that’s quick, inexpensive and effective – simplifying care delivery and improving health outcomes.

More Americans Will Seek Mental Health Treatment Through Virtual Channels

The nation’s mental health crisis is bad and getting worse. In fact, the increase in burnout and other mental and emotional challenges – especially among younger workers – has been billed a dual pandemic. But a chronic provider shortage, long wait times, high out-of-pocket costs and extremely narrow networks are major barriers for people in need of care – even when they have robust benefits plans.

Teletherapy and telepsychiatry have already begun filling the gaps in care. McKinsey & Co. reports a full 50% of psychiatry visits are now virtual, and MeMD’s own data echoes these results. The company’s talk therapy visits shot up 224% in 2020, but that was just the beginning:

MeMD saw more visits in the first quarter of 2021 than in all of 2019 combined.

Employers knows that mental well-being and healthcare costs are inexorably linked: A report from Tufts Medical Center and One Mind at Work shows the average annual health costs of an employee with depression is $10,000 – more than twice the cost of an employee without depression. As a result, more companies are turning to telebehavioral health to remove obstacles and give their staff access to the services they need most.

Virtual Primary Care Can Combat Widespread Provider Shortages as Businesses Step up the Offering

Primary care is another area threatened by provider shortages. The American Association of Medical Colleges reports the nation could be short 55,200 primary care physicians by 2032 – a problem that’s exacerbated by a general increase in healthcare needs nationwide.

The shortage is highly problematic, as primary care is key to good health. A wealth of medical studies correlate access to primary care with positive health outcomes, and research from Oregon Health Authority shows that:

Every $1 invested in primary care yields $13 in savings in downstream costs.

It is also the lynchpin for managing chronic conditions, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are the biggest drivers of healthcare costs for businesses.

Fortunately, telehealth has stepped in to fill this gap, too. In 2022 and beyond, businesses will leverage virtual primary care to drive down healthcare costs and ensure employees have access to the routine, preventive care they need.

Telehealth to Drive Increased Transparency Across the Healthcare System

U.S. consumers also are demanding more transparency in healthcare pricing, from hospital facility fees and clinic visits to drug prices and imaging. While most healthcare organizations and drug companies have dragged their feet in meeting this demand, telehealth has long been a leader in transparency. Employers never have to wonder how much telehealth will cost – it’s always a flat per-visit fee. 

Now and in years to come, telehealth will continue to set the standard for transparency across the U.S. healthcare system, which will enable employers and workers to make smarter, more informed choices about their care.

Omnichannel Care Meets the Needs of an Evolved and Evolving Society

With so many people continuing to work from home amid the pandemic, employees are enjoying considerably more flexibility at work. It’s no surprise they want flexibility from their healthcare, too, which has paved the way for an omnichannel approach.

Businesses are designing health plans that put their workers at the wheel, allowing them to choose when, where and how to access the care they need. Patients will take their rightful place at the center of the healthcare experience and will access services on their terms, whether via video visits, phone consultations, text conversations with providers or traditional in-person care.

Omnichannel care is particularly pertinent for companies employing several different generations at the office or job site, each with their own healthcare preferences.

Also consider that millennials – the largest generation in today’s workforce – prefer the simplicity, flexibility, convenience and speed of virtual care. These options are essential for a quality health plan that attracts the right talent.

Federal Policy to Meet Expanded Business and Consumer Demand

In the face of the pandemic, U.S. insurers quickly expanded coverage to include all telehealth visits, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services loosened restrictions on virtual care. Medicare, too, expanded telehealth benefits.

As long as the federal COVID-19 public health emergency is in effect, Medicare beneficiaries will continue to have access to a broad set of covered services via telehealth. When COVID-19 recedes, it’s likely the federal government will grant a two-year extension of current measures.

At the state level, many new telehealth policies were enacted in 2021. Legislation included expanding the definition of telehealth to include audio-only technology, requiring coverage and reimbursement for telehealth services by Medicaid and commercial payers, expanding health care professionals’ scope of practice to include telehealth and numerous others.

Going forward, there will be a push to approve audio-only options in states that have yet to pass this legislation – and a demand that payers recognize and pay for this method of care delivery.

While many uncertainties remain amid this pandemic, one thing is clear: telehealth is here to stay, and its role in the American healthcare system will only gain more prominence.

Younger generations will help drive utilization rates in our on-demand society, and employers and lawmakers are taking notice. At the organizational level, it’s no longer a question of should we implement telehealth, but more so to what extent based on my members’ or employees’ wants and needs. The innovations now emerging from the telehealth and omnichannel spaces will shape the entire healthcare experience for years to come.

Learn more about organizational partnerships and the virtual care services MeMD provides. 

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Bill Goodwin