REGION — In 17 years as a therapist at Kaiser Permanente, Bharathy Thridandam had never before seen their work fully converted to an online platform that could still protect patient confidentiality.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kaiser’s team of about 30 therapists, like many other healthcare professionals, rapidly adopted the technology needed for successful remote work.
For mental and medical health, COVID-19 has made way for two changes: more people needing help and a surge of telehealth services to meet that need. As some professionals return to in-person appointments, experts say the benefits of telehealth are likely to remain.
“Some patients are loving telehealth,” Thridandam said. “They don’t have to drive somewhere, don’t have to take time off from work, they can stay at home and be in their comfortable environment. This is especially helpful for people with young children, the elderly and disabled.”
With telehealth’s ability to reach a greater number of people, virtual care may not just be a compromise of the pandemic era, but a vital component of the future economy.
“To the extent that services can be provided virtually as they will have to be, now borders don’t matter that much, so in areas of services we might actually see an expansion of trade,” said Cal State San Marcos Economics Professor Ranjeeta Basu. “It’s a very interesting time to be creative and innovative. For telehealth, you’d need to know how to be a nurse, for example, but now you need to also learn how to offer that virtually.”
Providing virtual services can make the difference between competitors: While some therapists say they’ve lost 10 to 40% of their clientele, teletherapy appointments have helped keep others’ practices at 100%. During a time of growing unemployment and stress, increasing telehealth accessibility and affordability can be key.
“I’m glad [Kaiser] made the services available to patients because people need it more now than any time,” Thridandam said. “I’ve been offering a sliding scale fee because we really need to make these services available and I don’t want pricing to stop them from getting the help they need.”
Government action has also contributed to the telehealth transition. According to former Aetna Insurance COO Jeffrey Dziedzic, statewide telehealth regulations aim to increase access, while requiring that doctors don’t lose money for conducting remote work.
Though these changes are put in place amid a state of emergency, the effects of telehealth could last beyond the pandemic.
“Increased telemedicine is going to be a new norm,” Dziedzic said. “There are times where you have to go to the doctor and not everything can be over the phone, but it will change the face of what healthcare looks like now and in the future.”