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COVID Has Become an ‘Accelerant’ for Telehealth

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on February 17, 2021

Dr. Dennis McGorry conducts a telehealth visit at St. Luke’s University Health Network. (Courtesy of St. Luke’s University Health Network)

The race for a COVID-19 vaccine and quick, reliable testing dominated the health headlines over the last year.

But a parallel innovation was also taking hold of health care at a break-neck speed normally not seen in such a highly regulated industry.

Telehealth.

Prompted by the social distancing mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID, patients hopped on their smart phones and laptops for virtual doctor visits to receive care for upper respiratory infections, pink eye and other non-emergency care. Other patients had their temperatures and blood oxygen levels monitored from their homes.

While the technology has been around for more than a decade, the pandemic helped make telehealth more mainstream and could indelibly change the way Lehigh Valley health care providers, which are also its largest employers, operate.

Capital Blue Cross CEO Todd Shamash called the pandemic an “accelerant” for the expansion of telehealth.

“I do think telehealth and virtual care is here to stay,” Shamash said this fall during a video interview with Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Don Cunningham.

While the speed of that growth depends on congressional action, industry leaders are preparing for telehealth’s future post-pandemic. That could have a consequential impact on Lehigh Valley’s health care and social assistance industry, which employs 60,000, and the industries that support it.

“Lehigh Valley boasts an impressive cluster of companies built around health care and life sciences,” said George Lewis, LVEDC’s Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Research. “We have labs processing medical tests, distributors packaging pharmaceuticals and manufacturers making medical devices. So, it is important to monitor how the health care industry is changing, especially a trend as transformative as telehealth.”

Consider these statistics:

  • About 70% of ambulatory care visits at St. Luke’s University Health Network were done virtually during the peak of COVID this spring and 75% during the second wave the last week of December.
  • Lehigh Valley Health Network has provided since April nearly 2,800 kits to patients to monitor blood oxygen levels and temperatures remotely through its Continuous Ambulatory Remote Engagement Services program.
  • BSI Corporate Benefits saw the utilization rate among its members go from about 35% to as much as 67%.
  • More than 3.4 million telehealth services last year were accessed by Highmark Blue Shield members. A plurality of those visits – 1.5 million – were for behavioral health services.

The rise in telehealth echoes what is happening across the nation, according insurance claim data analyzed by the nonprofit FAIR Health. Telehealth visits went up from about .1% of the procedures and services listed on medical insurance claims in April 2019 to 13% in April 2020. By November, telehealth claim lines remained elevated but dropped to 6%. The increase was even more pronounced in the Northeast, according to FAIR Health’s Regional Tracker.

Last summer, a survey by the Physician Foundation indicated more than half of the physicians planned to increase their virtual visits over the next year – though three-fourths indicated widespread use won’t happen until reimbursements are comparable to in-person visits.

That could impact the footprint of health care. Medical office tenants occupy 2.8 million square feet in Lehigh Valley, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate research group.

Commercial real estate services firm JLL issued a report last year that called medical office investment “well-positioned to remain strong in a post-COVID environment.” The report says that telehealth visits could reconfigure medical office layouts with, for example, virtual care physician suites. It could also capture more people seeking health care as there is a heightened awareness of wellness, according to the report.

“Telehealth can ‘expand the pie’ by providing increased access to health care and produce more live-care follow up visits,” the report says.

Christie Musser, Senior Network Director, Operations Clinical Communications Virtual Care at St. Luke’s, she expects expansions in telehealth could increase the reach of St. Luke’s geographically and make health care, both primary and specialty care, more accessible.

Many service lines have started to offer some post-op surgical care virtually and the network hopes to create a “virtual surgical network” where much of the pre- and post-surgical experience is accomplished virtually either in or near their home. Patients who may have thought they lived too far away for surgery may reconsider, she said.

In addition, she also pointed out the success of St. Luke’s nursing home partnerships that brought virtual specialty care to residents, decreasing transportation and disease exposure.

Telemedicine “is never going to be a replacement for in-person care, but it will complement it while transforming the efficiency, access, quality, and patient experience of our health care system,” Musser said.

LVHN on Dec. 23 rolled out its [email protected] program by combing home nurse visits, virtual physician visits and enhanced remote monitoring. Patients who don’t need hospital services but require care can receive enhanced monitoring from their homes. They are given kits with items like a pulse oximeter, blood pressure cuff and thermometer that automatically submit data to the hospital. The plan is to expand it to other illness such as congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“If a patient were to need additional medical attention, we are able to get them the care they need at the appropriate time and place,” Dr. Robert Kruklitis, LVHN Vice President of Transformation, said in a statement. “I’m so proud that we are able to offer this program to the Lehigh Valley. With these services, we are able to help many of our patients avoid hospitalization.”

To learn more about telehealth, visit the web sites of St. Luke’s and LVHN.

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