As the world responds to the COVID-19 crisis, telemedicine is in the spotlight. 

Medicare expanded telehealth access. Medical experts now recommend telemedicine as a first-line approach for those who fear they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to keep them out of overburdened hospitals. And people around the country are calling their providers for medical advice rather than stepping into their offices.

Though it’s getting a lot of attention now, telemedicine is not a new invention. I’ve been in healthcare since I started medical school and was inspired to launch my own electronic health records company, so I’m intimately familiar with how slowly the healthcare industry tends to adopt new technology. 

One of my early companies, Bond Technologies, created the first browser-best Electronic Medical Records (EMR) in 2004. Sharing information online was already getting to be a way of life – for example, the social networking site MySpace was founded in 2003. But healthcare followed slowly, and providers and healthcare systems were initially quite resistant to adopting EMRs. At the same time, patients needed a way to access their basic health information from home, and doctors needed a way to easily transmit their patients’ medical history from one practice to another. 

Like electronic medical records, the need for telemedicine isn’t new, either. And the COVID-19 crisis may be what keeps telemedicine front-of-mind for both patients and businesses going forward.

One reason is that the world after COVID-19 might not look the same as it did before. For one, experts are predicting that we may not be able to go back to “normal” anytime soon. Some researchers are estimating that social distancing practices will need to continue in one form or another until a vaccine for the virus is developed and tested – a process that will likely take around 18 months.

But even outside of a pandemic, telemedicine is a critical way to expand quality healthcare access to the people who need it, whether or not they’re not stuck at home. Elderly populations are vulnerable during any normal flu season. Why take the risk of going into an office full of sick people if you don’t have to? For the young and healthy, telehealth is much more convenient than making an appointment and sitting in the waiting room. 

Mental health care access is also an issue under normal circumstances. Sixty percent of counties in the U.S. don’t have a single psychiatrist. Virtual therapy can bring care to them.

Telehealth can also be higher quality than in-person care. For example, 50 percent of physical therapists don’t follow evidence-based guidelines for treating low back pain. When people don’t receive the right care for back pain, they may ultimately seek out unnecessary and costly imaging and surgeries. Telehealth can offer both better access and lower costs compared with in-person care. 

Businesses stand to benefit from telemedicine, too, particularly self-insured employers. Emergency room use is one example. Two-thirds of emergency room visits are avoidable, according to research by UnitedHealth Group. Replacing those visits with a telemedicine call could save thousands per visit on average. 

When people get the right care at the right time, they’re less likely to receive unnecessary treatments or seek out the wrong care. For example, most people don’t receive the recommended treatments for low back pain. Instead, they may get unnecessary imaging or, ultimately, surgeries that cost up to $100,000

Today, I’m proud to work with a talented group of healthcare technologists and coaches at Fern Health.  Fern delivers digital care through employers for chronic musculoskeletal conditions – painful, expensive conditions that affect one in three adults. The goal of telemedicine is to provide robust, personalized care no matter where patients are.

We’re in an unprecedented time in our modern history. I predict that even after COVID-19 passes, we’ll see telehealth carve out a permanent niche in the way we operate as a society. We’ll all be safer and healthier for it.

Travis Bond is CEO of Fern Health.

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