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Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Connecticut’s only not-for-profit health insurer, dispels myths about telehealth and shares its hidden benefits.

The pandemic presented a unique dilemma for doctors and their patients. As a necessary precaution, clinics and hospitals limited the number of visitors to stem spread of the dreaded disease. But COVID-19 also raised awareness to a growing alternative to in-person doctor visits: Telehealth. And while many appointments are returning to in-person visits, the practice of conducting appointments with your nurse, physician, or specialist remotely via video conferencing or phone, is here to stay.

Telehealth has been around for years, but it had long been overlooked by patients, either because they didn’t understand it, weren’t comfortable using it, or were simply unaware of it as an option. As recently as 2019, for instance, only 11% of Americans were using telehealth. But by May 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, that number had more than quadrupled to 46%. And when comparing monthly medical claims year over year for the month of December, alone, telehealth claims skyrocketed an estimated 2,800%. Some providers have even set up virtual plan options. Today, even as providers re-open for in-person visits, the use of telehealth for a variety of services like routine follow-ups, assessing skin conditions, and discussing symptoms like a fever or cough, has proven itself effective and convenient—for both the patient and the provider.

But even as telehealth becomes more of a vital everyday channel for our health care system, the use of virtual visits is still misunderstood by many patients. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Connecticut’s only not-for-profit health insurer, is here to dispel the myths about telehealth and discuss some of its hidden benefits. That way, patients can make informed decisions when it comes to their health care.

Myth-busting Telehealth

Though telehealth has been available for quite some time now, there is still patient uncertainty and intimidation surrounding the adoption of telehealth. Here are some commonly held misconceptions about telehealth and the reality behind them:

Myth: Telehealth is too complicated for me.

Reality: Usually, all you need is an internet connection and a computer, phone, or tablet. And it’s often as easy as clicking a link or a provider’s specific app and following their simple instructions. For instance, with Harvard Pilgrim’s SimplyVirtualSM HMO and Virtual ChoiceSM HMO, virtual-first care models, patients have immediate 24/7 access to their primary care physician through virtual visits (via video, voice, and in-app messaging) that can be conducted from home, work, the car, or even on vacation.

Myth: Telehealth can’t address my issue.

Reality: While it’s true that for some conditions, especially emergencies, there’s no substitute for an in-person visit, a virtual consultation is appropriate in a wide variety of instances. You can discuss symptoms, like a fever or cough; assess skin conditions; get support for joint pain; refill certain prescriptions; speak with a mental or behavioral health professional; and much more.

Myth: Telehealth isn’t available to me.

Reality: Before COVID-19, telehealth faced numerous barriers, but with the rise in demand during the pandemic, many health systems and insurers have worked to expand their virtual options. Some states have asked health plans to extend their coverage and access to telemedicine services for their members. If your provider doesn’t offer telemedicine, you can access remote support through app-based providers like Doctor On Demand, a Harvard Pilgrim partner.

Added Benefits of Telehealth

Telehealth has been a vital tool during the pandemic, providing a way for patients in need to seek medical guidance and treatment while maintaining social distancing and limiting the spread of disease. Even post-pandemic, the expanded use of telemedicine will provide meaningful change for the future. For example:

  • Telemedicine increases access to primary care.

Even before the pandemic, the country was witnessing a sharp decline in primary care visits. A recent poll found that 45% of individuals aged 18 to 29 said they didn’t even have a primary care provider (PCP). Data clearly shows that there are long-term benefits to maintaining a patient-doctor relationship. For instance, one study showed that patients who experienced a major health event, like cardiovascular disease, and who also had a positive experience with their PCP had a 40% to 50% lower risk of mortality in the next decade than to those who did not. Through telemedicine, PCPs are able to conduct more visits per day, which, in turn, allows them to take on more patients overall. Also, telehealth enables patients who are unable to travel to easily see a doctor without having to leave their homes.

  • Telemedicine helps meet the increased demand for behavioral health care.

As of December 2020, the second most used claims code for telehealth services in the U.S. was for psychotherapy services, and the top reported diagnosis was for mental health. That demand for behavioral health services is only increasing, and telemedicine provides a uniquely flexible means for doctors to reach and treat more patients than they would otherwise be able to welcome into their offices.

  • Telemedicine extends care opportunities for remote areas.

Before the pandemic, 80% of rural America was medically underserved. The CDC reports that people who live in the rural parts of the country are at higher risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, and stroke. With telehealth, these remote parts of the U.S. can have a virtual conduit to quality health care.

Is a Virtual Visit (or Virtual Plan) Right For You?

Even in a post-pandemic world, telemedicine will still have many uses. While the technology hasn’t yet reached the point where doctors can check everything online, and in-person visits should still be part of your regular health regiment, you might be surprised at all the things you and your doctor can accomplish online. Here’s a list of things that can be addressed through a virtual doctor visit.

Telehealth is here to stay, and that’s a good thing for patients and providers. To learn further how you might access or benefit from telemedicine, contact your local provider or visit Harvard Pilgrim to learn how they are helping their members take advantage of this exciting and innovative technology.



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