While telehealth has been widely available for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a huge surge in virtual care use. Yet telehealth is limited in scope by in-person lab testing. 70% of today’s medical decisions depend on laboratory test results, and the future of virtual care depends upon providers’ ability to merge remote diagnostics with virtual care and telehealth services.
Companies that use telehealth can launch at-home diagnostics to create a full remote care cycle where patients and users collect samples at home. The samples are mailed to labs and those results are reviewed by providers, who prescribe additional follow up care. At-home self-testing can screen for infectious diseases, fertility markers, allergies, cancers, comprehensive metabolic panels, and more. Telehealth is popular with patients, providers, and even insurance companies. It can test for everything from HIV to cancer.
Telehealth during COVID-19
Telemedicine has been in regular use for a hundred years, with ships in the 1920s using radio to communicate with doctors on land. Hospital-based telemedicine expanded in the late 1950s and early 1960s to accommodate stroke victims and support intensive care units. However, COVID-19 ushered in a telehealth boom in the United States on a huge public scale to accommodate social distancing rules.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported “massive increases in the use of telehealth helped maintain some health care access during the COVID-19 pandemic, with specialists like behavioral health providers seeing the highest telehealth utilization relative to other providers.” There was a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 alone. Throughout the pandemic, telehealth reached new patients, including marginalized groups like African-Americans. Penn Medicine hospitals in Philadelphia reported that Black patients’ visit completion rates increased to 70% from 52% with access to telehealth services.
As a result of its popularity, insurance providers have started offering virtual care plan options. UnitedHealthcare provides “a virtual-first health plan that offers an integrated approach to provide care both virtually and in-person.” Some argue that virtual-first primary care, where patients engage with telemedicine services from the beginning, are likely to become the “starting place for most primary care.”
At-home health testing
Home diagnostics allow providers to collect important healthcare data remotely. Patients use kit devices to collect saliva or blood (in this case, using a DBS card test) and mail samples to the lab. These labs follow the same requirements and protocols as labs that process in-clinic diagnostics. Certain types of at-home tests, like HIV self-tests, have been available since 1996.
Self-testing not only helps marginalized and vulnerable patients access healthcare – no need to take time off work to visit a lab; no need to call in accessible transportation – but it also serves providers. At-home health testing can lower the workload for providers who care for patients with chronic conditions. At-home health testing could help curb rapidly scaling STI rates. (According to the CDC, “data shows another sharp uptick in syphilis and gonorrhea cases and detection gaps for chlamydia, all made worse by the pandemic.”) The FDA, in a show of support for self-testing, recently changed its policy to support at-home diagnostic testing for infectious disease management.
Expand telehealth offerings with remote diagnostics
Both patients and physicians like telehealth and want it to continue after the pandemic comes to an end, according to a study conducted by the American Medical Association and the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition. 79% of patients were “very satisfied” with the care received during their last telehealth visit, and 68% of physicians told researchers they were motivated to increase the use of telehealth in their practice. By expanding telehealth with remote diagnostics, providers would be able to see patients and users as part of a comprehensive telehealth cycle. Telehealth, now limited by in-person lab testing, could become the healthcare of choice, especially for chronic illnesses suffered or those with otherwise limited care options.