The current COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated access to health care challenges for everyone due to the quarantine and stay-at-home measures. Decisions had to be made to quickly identify alternative ways for people to access health care. Virtual care–including telehealth, remote monitoring, and other remote forms of communication–is one approach that was moderately used prior to the pandemic, but has been widely implemented as part of the COVID-19 response. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that in April 43.5% of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth compared with 0.1% in February prior to the public health emergency. Other forms of virtual care are also becoming more widespread; a patient companion app (apps that are often used to help patients connect to providers virtually and track their behaviors and habits related to health) which had about 2,300 downloads in 2019, found that more than 22,300 downloads occurred in the second quarter of 2020 alone. Additionally, one survey found that 76% of a cross-sector of 2,000 American respondents reported that they’ve used telehealth during the pandemic, a growth of 154%. While virtual care visits are now decreasing from their initial height, telemedicine continues to be used at rates far higher than before the pandemic.
This pandemic-induced transition to virtual care will leave a lasting impact on our health care system. However, it is important to recognize that virtual care has been advocated for, for years prior to the pandemic. It has been seen as a potential long-term fix to many problems in the health care system, such as rural health care access, provider shortages, and patient transportation barriers. The increased need for virtual care across all populations due to COVID-19 has shown just a baseline of its potential capabilities to help achieve better care and to address long-standing inequities in access to care. While emergency virtual care legislation and administrative action was enacted during the first stages of the pandemic to close immediate gaps in accessing care, state and federal policymakers now face decisions on whether to turn short-term fixes into long-term policy solutions.
We have summarized existing legislative action into nine virtual care policy areas (not listed in any ranked order) that are designed to make people’s ability to access virtual care services as easy as possible. We highlight these policy areas because, if enacted when and where clinically appropriate, they have the potential to close readily apparent gaps in virtual care access. As part of USofCare’s work moving forward, we will be evaluating the extent to which the policies listed below and future policy areas and legislation are meeting the needs of people, and recommending changes where necessary. Read more on the nine virtual care policy areas.