Healthcare After COVID-19: The New ‘Digital’ Normal

Life after COVID-19 might feel like a distant dream for most people, but like everything, this too shall pass. The world will be returning to a new normal, and that new normal will be most evident in healthcare. The concept of healthcare provider and practice is undergoing a significant shift from the conventional hospital setting to a more fluid application that flexes with the needs of the community.

Adapting means many things in a world defined by "flattening the curve" and crisis response. Parks are transformed into field hospitals, new sterilization methods are used for personal protective equipment (PPE), and innovation means that one ventilator can support multiple patients. Technology is playing a more prominent role in the way healthcare is practiced, and telemedicine is front and center of that movement. People realize that it's possible to deliver quality care in a variety of settings, and there are benefits to being flexible – more accessible, efficient, and effective under the right circumstances.

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One of the barriers to earlier adoption of this technology came with limited ability for clinicians to be reimbursed for services. After the US started seeing the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) changed its regulations and increased coverage for telemedicine services. Several private insurers followed suit and made similar amendments of their own.

“We are doing more virtual visits in a given day than we did the entire proceeding year, so things can change," said John Brownstein, chief innovations officer at Boston Children's Hospital. "I don't see us going back to the way things were, in a positive way. It has focused our team to deploy this at scale, and these kinds of digital practices become core to the practice of medicine going forward."

Another rule that’s come under scrutiny in recent weeks is the government restrictions regarding physician and nurse licensing for each state they practice in. Both state and federal governments are relaxing the rules so doctors can respond to those regions hardest hit by COVID-19. Thirty states have temporarily eased these regulations, and another two dozen are streamlining the process for retired medical professionals with lapsed licenses to re-enter the profession.

While the novel virus and its demands on the health system will eventually recede, the industry pain points will remain. Telemedicine is proving itself as an essential way to connect with consumers during this time, but whether providers and patients buy into the solution over the long term remains to be seen. Many hospitals and physicians hold opinions that virtual visits are a poor substitute for in-person appointments, but this may change as they become more familiar with their benefits during this time.

The other variable in this equation is whether physicians continue to be reimbursed for telemedicine service. Currently, CMS will continue funding patient contacts using this technology only the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Whether virtual visits continue to be paid out after the crisis subsides will depend on how healthcare workers, administrators, and patients embrace this new way of interacting with each other.\