A pandemic’s impact on healthcare can be counterintuitive. Some might assume that the global spread of a killer virus would create the ultimate job security for doctors and nurses. After all, the most secure time to be a firefighter is during wildfire season.
Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Hospitals and other facilities are struggling financially due to restrictions on elective surgery and the effects of patients delaying or canceling procedures.
“Let’s be clear, elective surgeries are the lifeblood of many hospitals, if not all hospitals,” Mary Dale Peterson, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, told ABC News. “They account for 50 to 60% of profits for most.”
When healthcare employers run low on cash, their workers find their pay slashed and their jobs in peril. How bad is it? The latest report from the research firm Altarum shows that 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March, an unprecedented number in the past several decades.
Changes in Patient Behavior Add to Strain
As if doctors and other healthcare professionals weren’t already going through enough upheaval, patients are substantially changing the way they view and interact with healthcare. Many of these decisions are driven by financial woes, though other factors certainly play a role.
Research from PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Institute reveals the magnitude of these changes.
- 32% of patients are adjusting how much they spend on healthcare
- 78% of patients are skipping appointments, elective procedures, and lab tests
- 22% of patients are adjusting how much they spend on medications
- 22% of patients are skipping doses of medications
- 9% of patients plan to discontinue their medications
This survey highlights the dynamic forces impacting healthcare during the pandemic. Facilities already reeling from reduced profits must now deal with seismic changes in how patients want to be treated and how much they’re willing and able to spend.
A Virtual Remedy
Amidst this sobering news, certain elements of healthcare are growing during the pandemic. One of these shining stars is telehealth. The same forces that are prompting patients to throttle back on health expenses, ration their medications, and skip appointments help to make telehealth a desirable option.
“The adoption of telemedicine shifted into hyperdrive over the past month, with virtual healthcare interactions on pace to top 1 billion by year’s end, according to analysts at Forrester Research,” states a telehealth analysis from CNBC. “That would represent a massive expansion from telemedicine usage before the coronavirus pandemic.”
Not only is telehealth good for patients, but recent changes ensure that healthcare providers also benefit from the trend. For example, Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements for telemedicine visits have been increased so they’re equal to those for office visits. And previously-stringent healthcare regulations have been eased for malpractice, prescriptions, and the use of mobile devices.
Given the stress that many healthcare workers are under, work-life balance becomes more important for both providers and patients. Telehealth supports this balance, allowing patients to schedule appointments whenever they’re available and from multiple locations. Providers can hold patient consultations with almost no overhead costs. The convenience of the arrangement can attract new patients and reduce no-shows.
Finally, telehealth makes it possible to deliver healthcare to some of the neediest patients in America. These include:
- Low-income patients with challenging work schedules or a lack of transportation
- Rural patients who aren’t able to travel to healthcare facilities
- Patients with mental health issues and other stigmatized conditions who may be less likely to attend office visits
How Permanent Are These Evolutions?
We still don’t know how telehealth and other dramatically impacted elements of healthcare will continue to evolve as we transition into the COVID-19 recovery phase. Given the benefits listed above, it would seem that telehealth’s upward trajectory will continue unabated.
But some of the positive factors fostering its growth could relapse after the crisis. As David Shaywitz, a physician-scientist, writes in the National Review, “the increased use of telemedicine now is at least partly due to the temporary lifting of a slew of barriers concerning its regulation and reimbursement.”
Because these crucial changes, like so many COVID-related policies, aren’t permanent, they could potentially be rescinded in a matter of months. If that were to happen, Shaywitz says, “it will impair the growth of telehealth once more.”
Other areas of healthcare that could take a hit after the pandemic include pharmaceuticals, testing tech, and AI solutions. Part of those struggles would be due to a reduction of demand, just as munitions factories received far fewer orders after WWII. Others, as with telehealth, could falter because of policy changes.
The only certainty is that the future of healthcare will be different than it was last year, and it will be different than it is today. Some evolutions will be positive, others more detrimental. What matters is that we allow the lessons of 2020 to guide our perspective as we move into a post-COVID world.