More than at any other recent time, an inefficient and insufficient healthcare infrastructure is causing Americans genuine fear, as the COVID-19 crisis continues. We used to say we had the world’s best health care system, but our confidence in it is wavering. The good news is that our country still does in fact have some of the world’s best healthcare. The bad news is it’s not equally distributed. In fact, it’s designed to be unequally spread. That’s something we need to fix.
Here are three major problems:
- Care normally provided in a hospital isn’t available elsewhere in the community.
- Care providers in one state can’t easily treat patients in another (though some key restrictions have recently been relaxed).
- We accept as normal that some counties have dozens of physicians per 1,000 residents while others have exactly zero. (That’s true, for example, of 35 counties in the state of Texas.) This problem has existed for decades, but now is contributing to our country’s breaking points as the pandemic persists.
The issue isn’t lack of supply. Rather, it’s a clumsy, antiquated distribution system.
But technology, as we know, has an uncanny ability to disrupt everything. Telehealth, which even the President now talks about on national television, means delivering medical care using technology, often over mobile devices. As While many of us fixate on the novel experience of seeing a doctor through a phone, it’s what else is in the system that carries the punch. Though we are using many tools to get our country to the right side of the pandemic, telehealth is making a profound impact. That’s because of the ways it can balance out access to our healthcare system.
When we shop online, we care less about where a product comes from, and more about how soon it arrives at our door. This is a radical departure from old-school shopping when we went only to shops. Telehealth introduces the same concept to healthcare. It allows live care to be transmitted from where it’s available to where it’s needed. As CEO of Amwell, a company that provides affordable, high-quality care virtually, I am deeply involved in telehealth’s journey.
Applied as a national switchboard, this concept alone can have profound implications on how we reimagine our healthcare system. It can allow us to tackle thorny inefficiencies and insufficiencies. But today, in particular, actively embracing this technology can allow us to more quickly move the needle in the battle against COVID-19.
As impactful as telehealth technology is in moments like the pandemic, its potential can be far greater and eventually completely mainstream for any American. Its possible uses go well beyond any we have seen before.
The first decade of telehealth, from 2005 to 2015, was most associated with treating health conditions of low severity, requiring less caregiver attention. Individuals called upon virtual visits for convenience first, when they had ailments like colds and flus, sore throats and headaches. More recently, the technology was being applied further upstream for more complex and often chronic illnesses like hypertension, and for behavioral health and telepsychiatry.
While there will always be need for physical care/infrastructure, telehealth applications are now being more readily integrated into the fabric of traditional healthcare. They are making a difference today in more ways than ever.
But in this moment, telehealth’s connectivity, convenience and ability to be used by one individual at a time brings healthcare from one hotspot to the next without contributing further to the pandemic’s spread. This has opened pathways for worried, quarantined Americans to stay where they are and to interact with healthcare professionals without either side being worried about undue risk. It has created room for our elders to stay home for routine healthcare needs, reducing their likely exposure to Covid-19 in medical facilities’ waiting areas. It has allowed clinicians, many also locked in their homes, to serve a nation in need.
And we can allow specialists from around the country to remotely help lesser-trained clinicians in other regions deliver the complex care we need, even in makeshift hospitals and ICUs. It will take one system, one technology, to do that.
Telehealth can be used to pool our healthcare resources together. That matters more now than ever, when pulling together in many ways has gone from an aspiration to a necessity.
Roy Schoenberg is Co-CEO and President of Amwell, a national telehealth company.