September 23, 2020

How the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming healthcare access

By Nika Kabiri, JD PhD

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how Americans do a lot of things. Simple errands like grocery shopping have become dominated by delivery. Dinner-and-a-movie date nights have been increasingly supplanted by Netflix and takeout as restaurants and theaters limit their capacity, if they’re open at all.

Among the starkest changes, though, have come in the ways that Americans access healthcare.

Holding up healthcare

While going to the doctor’s office is rarely cited as anyone’s idea of a good time, the risks associated with being around other sick people while a coronavirus pandemic rages on have made individuals less likely to make an appointment with their physician – even when they feel like they need care.

Constant communication, and even resharing information, will go a long way to remind your employees that you care about their safety and health. It will also help to drive home points that you want to be sure your team takes to heart.

A survey conducted by Accolade and Kabiri Consulting in late June found that 56% of respondents reported that they would delay seeking routine medical care (like checkups) until the pandemic ends. Fifty-six percent also (56%) said they would delay scheduled procedures like lab tests or surgeries.

The possibility of contracting COVID-19 in a doctor’s office or waiting room was cited as a driving factor among those hitting the pause button on their healthcare needs, though other factors also played a role. Younger Americans were more likely to be deferring their healthcare needs because of COVID-19 concerns, as were people who had recently lost a job.

One factor that made people less likely to skip or put off care? An existing relationship with their family doctor. In Accolade’s survey, respondents who already had a primary care provider we less likely to delay both routine checkups and scheduled medical procedures.

Telemedicine’s spring surge

The reluctance of many patients to visit their doctor in person over the past translated to an unprecedented spike in the popularity of telemedicine appointments this spring and summer. Accolade’s team saw this rise reflected in our own internal figures, with requests for telehealth care surging to more than twice the normal rate in March and April. Results from Accolade’s June survey of U.S. adults revealed that about half of Americans (46%) say they use telemedicine more now than before the pandemic began.

This increasing demand for remote doctor’s visits was paired with, and buoyed by, a peeling back of previous telehealth restrictions at the state and federal level. In March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded the types of telehealth visits that doctors would be reimbursed for, making it easier for older patients to access healthcare without leaving their homes.

The surge in remote healthcare visits wasn’t limited to humans, either. Telemedicine also saw a summer upswing in popularity among veterinarians, as people embrace remote visits to get routine checkups and more for their pets.

Are pandemic induced changes sustainable?

While the pandemic summer marked a boom time for telemedicine, some are questioning whether this increased adoption is here to stay.

Data from the healthcare records company Epic found that after peaking in April, telemedicine visits declined in June and remained steady in July. While even those declining statistics represented a significant increase in telemedicine appointments, the swift drop off suggest that pandemic induced behavior may not translate to long-term changes in how people connect with their doctors.

Still, some of the changes to laws, practices, and policies around telemedicine are likely to become permanent, which will no doubt impact the future of the industry. In Ohio, for instance, the Department of Medicaid put in place new rules to expand telehealth coverage as a response to the pandemic. Now, the Department is urging lawmakers to make those same emergency measures permanent.

A similar situation is playing out in Washington D.C. There, federal agencies are seizing on changes made during the coronavirus pandemic to make it easier for people in rural communities – which are often underserved in terms of healthcare access - to get care via telemedicine.

Accessing telehealth

Changing attitudes and evolving regulations mean that even if telemedicine doesn’t maintain its pandemic level of popularity, the services are likely to be utilized more frequently. Companies are increasingly viewing some sort of telemedicine access as a standard offering in their benefits package.

But offering a benefit isn’t enough to get people using it. That’s especially true for services like telemedicine, which can be unfamiliar for many patients. To learn how Accolade’s health assistants can make it easier for your team to access telemedicine – and every other benefit your organization offers – contact us today to schedule a demo.