Trends in telehealth and virtual care following the pandemic

Dr. Vin Gupta, MD, MPA, MSc

Pulmonary/Critical Care Physician

Trends in telehealth and virtual care following the pandemic

14 September 2022 | 7min

Quick Takes

  • The world as we know it has changed and evolved dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Telehealth has been a key element in effectively addressing the vast dynamics and increased need for immediate consultation and treatment

  • Continuous new developments and alternative avenues aiding in healthcare delivery and patient care are critical

Telehealth and virtual care were saving graces for the healthcare systems around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now as we begin to look toward the future of healthcare, and the future trends in telehealth, digital health solutions enabling remote care will continue to play a key role in helping overpressured and under-resourced systems achieve sustainability.  

The Healthcare Transformers team had a chance to speak with Dr. Vin Gupta, pulmonologist, health policy expert and medical analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. Dr. Gupta shares his insights on the use of digital tools following the recent global pandemic, its transformative impact on society and patient’s expectations of care delivery, and what we may expect in the future.   

Healthcare developments and patient adaptation 

HT: Telehealth stepped into the forefront of the healthcare industry during the COVID pandemic, now that we are seeing the return of normality in our lives, what are the current key trends in telehealth that will become standard to care delivery?

Dr. Vin Gupta: I’ll say that as a clinician, this movement toward enhanced patient engagement with telehealth as a substitute for services routinely provided in brick and mortar facilities has permanently changed our healthcare delivery system. 

Telehealth is smart politics and it’s smart health policy. It’s more health coverage at a lower cost, and hopefully for more people

Dr. Vin Gupta

Telehealth existed for years prior to the pandemic, but the big issue has been the willingness of the patient on the other end to receive care in that medium. Sometimes people just want to come into a physical facility, as they feel a greater amount of reassurance communicating face to face with their doctor or medical provider. 

The pandemic forced a change in behavior and patient expectations, rapidly. Now we’re seeing over 53 million Medicare enrollees in the United States engage in some form of telehealth service, up 63x fold from pre-pandemic levels (840K).1 So behavior change on the part of the patient is clearly changing with the times and driving increased utilization of telehealth and the future trends of telehealth.

I’ll also say that we’re just a lot better at doing more meaningful clinical delivery in the virtual space. Now we have connected devices and wearables that can give us more meaningful clinical information to make therapeutic decisions remotely. Now, when we’re talking virtually to someone, there’s far more meaningful information available that can be exchanged quickly so that better clinical decisions can be rendered. 

Clinicians can, for example, make dosing adjustments to medications.2 It’s no longer just a reassuring phone or zoom call, which is what used to happen prior to the pandemic. It’s actually an interaction that again is more convenient, and likely a lot quicker than driving to the hospital.  Governments, especially here in the United States, are recognizing that telehealth will help them achieve key goals such as increased access to healthcare for more people. It’s these trends in telehealth that allow us to see that it is smart politics and it’s smart health policy. More people can actually access the healthcare system at lower costs.

Improving connection and maintaining empathy in the world of digitization 

HT: How do you see the rise of digital tools and telehealth altering patient behaviors and attitudes towards their healthcare and needs?

Dr. Vin Gupta: Well, now you’re seeing a movement of innovation within the types of telehealth services that are being offered, so called asynchronous care delivery. It’s really meeting people where they are now with seamless, on-demand, protocolized health services for an acute problem. 

Telehealth services are entering a revolution where people can now answer a few basic questions in an online questionnaire and get connected to a clinician, asynchronously. You send a message and maybe 30 minutes later a clinician responds, and it’s like text messaging with a friend, but in this case, it’s a medical provider ready and able to help. 

They’ll ask you about what’s going on, you might have a travel appointment for some international travel. You might have, say COVID-19 and you’re worried about what to do. Through that asynchronous interaction, what ends up happening is a clinician can, in many parts of the world, determine if a therapeutic medication is needed and quickly prescribe a prescription. 

This on-demand, simple, frictionless interaction is the new type of digital tool that I think is meeting the moment.

HTWhat advice would you give to healthcare executives looking to meet the changing demands and attitudes of the modern patient? Are digital tools a necessary part of this equation?

Dr. Vin Gupta: First and foremost, digital tools are the wave of the future for any executive that’s in the healthcare space – whether that’s on the pharmaceutical side, direct care delivery, or on the payers’ side. 

If you’re within the healthcare industry and your company is not in some way directly or indirectly engaged with this new method to deliver care, then you’re going to be left out, plain and simple. 

The future consists of individuals that are willing to engage in on-demand services. The future is the individual that’s willing to try some of these innovative services and is less attached to one specific provider. 

New health policies and expansion in access to healthcare 

HT: How are health policies evolving to support the increasing trends in telehealth services? Are we increasing the gap in access? 

Dr. Vin Gupta: Countries around the world that are focused on digital health, are those that have no problems with broadband access. Many countries in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, as examples, and also China, to a certain degree. Certainly, the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region has countries that are investing heavily in digital health tools. 

Broadband access is table stakes. If you don’t have wide-scale adoption of smartphones, this becomes a really difficult innovation to adopt at scale. So countries right now that do have these critical infrastructure ingredients, already at scale, are at the table. 

So, what are the policies of governments across this particular group that have adopted digital health? What are the policies that are being wrestled with right now? Well, one is increasing broadband adoption to make sure that all jurisdictions within, say the United Kingdom or within the United States, are covered. 

Inequity is a big, big concern here. Are we actually worsening inequities in healthcare delivery because only the rich and affluent parts of these countries are going to be utilizing these amazing innovations? Will people that live in rural areas of Western Europe or Canada, for example, be left behind because there is not enough broadband access? Are smartphones too expensive for a lot of people? It’s true that even in affluent countries that are widely adopting digital health tools, there are a lot of people still being left behind that could probably benefit most from this type of innovation.

The metaverse and the future of healthcare 

HT: As a healthcare professional and futurist, how do you see the metaverse impacting the delivery of healthcare?

Dr. Vin Gupta: It’s unclear at this point the ways in which the metaverse, and virtual reality (VR) more broadly, could positively impact healthcare. When you think about who’s going to be utilizing VR from an age standpoint, all assumptions are out the door. Typically I think the default assumption is that VR is going to probably appeal to a younger demographic. 

I could see the metaverse VR  being an incredibly helpful tool if leveraged correctly. An independent risk factor that puts those that are 65 years of age and older at an increased risk of death and disability is loneliness.3 Perhaps the metaverse can help address issues that have no easy remedy and only continue to increase in prevalence such as mental health disorders, depression, and loneliness.  Can the metaverse also be used to encourage good habits such as increasing physical activity and decreasing the use of addictive vices such as vaping, drugs, and alcohol? That to me is the big question here.

What to expect for the future of healthcare

HT:   How do you envision healthcare in 5-10 years?

Dr. Vin Gupta:  Over the next 5-10 years, in Western economies that have really heavily invested in digital health tools, what does the future look like for us? How are we going to interact with a clinician when we need to? 

A lot of it depends on some of the things that we’ve been talking about, and if governments continue to see the light and make telehealth and digital health tool provisioning easier to access. Let’s assume they see the trends in telehealth and hence their potential for smart politics, begin covering the cost of a wearable device, like a smartwatch, and are not going to pursue policies that make it harder to access telemedicine or to do something in the home environment – These sets of policies would help unleash the true value proposition of digital health now to improve the patient experience (and downstream impacts on clinical outcomes).

Dr. Vin Gupta, MD, MPA, MSc MD, MSc, MPA is a practicing pulmonologist and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In parallel, he is a Commissioned Officer (O-4, Major) in the United States Air Force Medical Reserve Corps, serving as the Officer-in-Charge of the Critical Care Air Transport Capability at Joint-Base Lewis McChord. Outside of his civilian and military clinical responsibilities, Dr. Gupta serves as Chief Medical Officer of New Health Initiatives at Amazon and a part-time medical analyst for NBC News. He’s held prior research roles at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and World Bank, focused on pandemic influenza preparedness. Dr. Gupta received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University, Medical Doctorate from Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He has active board certification in Internal Medicine, Pulmonology and Critical Care Medicine and completed his clinical training at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.