As COVID-19 took hold in March, U.S. doctors limited in-person appointments — and many patients avoided them — for fear of infection. The result was a huge increase in the volume of remote medical and behavioral health visits.
Doctors, hospitals and mental health providers across the country reported a 50- to 175-fold rise in the number of virtual visits, according to a report released in May by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
The COVID-fueled surge has tapered off as patients venture back to doctors’ offices. But medical professionals and health experts predict that when the pandemic is over, telehealth will still play a much larger role than before.
“There are still a few doubting Thomases, but now that we’ve run our practices this way for three months, people have learned that it’s pretty useful,” says Dr. Joseph Kvedar, president of the American Telemedicine Association and a practicing dermatologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
For patients, the advantages of telemedicine are clear: You typically can get an appointment sooner, in the safety of your own home or workplace, saving time and money on gas and parking — in some cases, even avoiding a loss in wages for missing work.
James Wolfrom, a 69-year-old retired postal executive in San Francisco, has had mostly virtual health care appointments since the pandemic started. He particularly appreciates the video visits.
“It’s just like I’m in the room with the doctor, with all of the benefits and none of the disadvantages of having to haul my body over to the facility,” says Wolfrom, who has Type 2 diabetes. “Even after the pandemic, I’m going to prefer doing the video conferencing over having to go there.”
Telemedicine also provides care for people in rural areas who live far from medical facilities.
The growth of virtual care has been facilitated by Medicare rule changes for the COVID-19 emergency, including one that reimburses doctors for telemedicine at the same rate as in-person care for an expanded list of services. State regulators and commercial health plans also loosened their telehealth policies.
In California, the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans covering the vast majority of the state’s insured residents, requires commercial plans and most Medi-Cal managed care plans during the pandemic to pay providers for telehealth at parity with regular appointments and limit cost sharing by patients to no more than what they would pay for in-person visits. Starting Jan. 1, a state law — AB-744 — will make that permanent for commercial plans.
Five other states — Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota and New Mexico — have pay-parity laws already in effect, according to Mei Wa Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy. Washington state has one that also will begin Jan. 1.
If you are planning a telehealth appointment, be sure to ask your health plan if it is covered and how much the copay or coinsurance will be. The appointment may be through your in-network provider or a