The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for a lot of bad stuff. But, if you look really hard and maybe squint just right, there are a few less-than-terrible things to be found. The pandemic forced society to quickly adapt. It pushed forward the adoption of new technologies like Zoom and new ways of doing things, like working from home. There were changes in rules, regulations, and payment related to telehealth. A lot of patients and providers experienced their first virtual health appointment in the past 2 years, and many of them see the benefits. The pandemic forced the telehealth genie from the bottle. Now that patients and providers have seen the benefits, it’s not going back.
Why telehealth is here to stay
Telehealth isn’t going to replace in-person rehab, but it’s likely going to complement it heavily. Research has shown that telehealth is as effective as in-person rehab for a lot of conditions. It’s also shown high satisfaction rates from patients – up to 94% in some studies. For a lot of people, telehealth makes sense. Think about people trapped at home because of a snowstorm or those who are at high risk of falling on the ice. Before the wide adoption of telehealth, these patients didn’t get to see their PT during the winter. Now, they can stay connected virtually and continue healing through the bad weather. Telehealth can also work well for busy people. Patients can check in or have a visit with their PT on their lunch break, or while their kids are at practice.
Where telehealth could go
Even though there have been big advances in telehealth, we’re still in the early phases. It’s hard to predict how telehealth will be used in the future and how it will evolve, but expect it to look a lot different in 5 years. The software being used for telehealth will continue to get better. Expect a more engaging user experience with educational content and maybe some gamification – levels to achieve, points or badges to collect, or some other metric. Hardware will also continue to advance. Maybe the fitness tracker you already have will integrate into your telehealth app, letting your PT track your activity, heart rate, and other metrics. Remote stethoscopes, scales and other medical equipment already exist and will continue to become more common as prices decline.
While telehealth has certainly seen a big advance because of the pandemic, most people still see it as an adjunct to in-person visits. Right now, telehealth tends to be used because it’s more convenient than a visit in real life, not because it’s better. With advances in software platforms and hardware options, telehealth could evolve into something just as good as in person rehab that makes high quality rehab available to everyone.