A physician expert in virtual care talks technological advances, reimbursement legislation and the continued evolution of remote patient monitoring.
2020 and 2021 saw the mainstreaming of telehealth and the rise of remote patient monitoring. These changes to the healthcare landscape were helped partly by requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic and partly by the subsequent loosening of telemedicine reimbursement and licensure regulations by the government.
But what's to happen in 2022? Will the government and commercial payers continue to reimburse for telemedicine? Will new virtual-care legislation pass? Will there be technological advances that push the care paradigm further forward? And what of the future of remote patient monitoring?
Healthcare IT News sat down with Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Included Health, a telehealth technology and services company, to get his read on these questions and his predictions for telehealth in 2022 and beyond.
Q. What do you see in the realm of technological advances in telemedicine in 2022?
A. While 2021 saw many healthcare technology mergers and acquisitions in response to the pandemic, and growing virtual-care adoption among payers, providers and consumers, much of the technology of these combined entities remains fractured.
Though promoted as one offering, consumers still are having to navigate two or more platforms and work to connect the dots themselves. The technology needs to become invisible – so good that you don't even realize it's there.
The technology for virtual-care appointments also will continue to advance beyond 1:1 doctor-patient video conferencing. For example, in response to the rising behavioral health provider shortage, we can expect to see technology that can enable group sessions with multiple patients receiving counsel and support at once.
Whether it's behavioral, acute or chronic care, the most important role that technology will play is enabling all physicians to have the same window into a patient's medical history and care plan so they can provide integrated, longitudinal care.
The technology is what will enable this industry to realize the full potential of virtual care beyond transactional, one-time interactions.
Q. All the temporary reimbursement moves by government and payers for the sake of the pandemic really pushed telehealth into the mainstream. What do you foresee happening with reimbursement for virtual care in 2022? Will it become permanent? Will it be expanded?
A. With usage rates 38 times higher than pre-pandemic, and the inarguable value for the people who need it most – seniors and the immunocompromised who can't afford in-person exposure – I believe the government will and should expand virtual-care access.
Pre-pandemic virtual care was used for urgent, low-complexity issues – cough, cold, rashes. But today, the real value is for integrated chronic-disease management or ongoing behavioral-health therapy, where people need not be burdened by the constant travel in and out of doctors' offices.
The more care that shifts to virtual, the less burden of disease the patients will have, which will lead to better outcomes. This is an opportunity that should be afforded to everyone, especially our most vulnerable and historically underserved communities.
Q. Remote patient monitoring is a form of telehealth that is of growing interest to healthcare provider organizations. What do you see happening with RPM in 2022?
A. Adoption of remote patient monitoring devices continues to rise, and we don't see it slowing down any time soon.
Today, one third of consumers are more likely to choose a provider that allows them to share data from a connected health device, which only promotes more positive outcomes. The more real-time data that we can collect in the comfort of people's homes, the more personalized, data-driven virtual care we can provide.
However, to really launch adoption in this sector, the costs of these devices need to come down. As costs come down, health plans can more easily find an ROI [return on investment] to subsidize the use of these devices.