Early in the pandemic, healthcare providers had to use telehealth as a substitute for in-person care. Now, many healthcare professionals are trying to determine how to move past COVID-19, asking, “Is telehealth additive or substitutive?” But this is not the question they should be posing; instead, healthcare professionals should ask, “Which use cases make the most sense for telehealth to be additive or substitutive?”
Healthcare is moving to a hybrid model with the public health emergency (or PHE) ending and waivers lifting. That leaves providers determining what makes the most sense clinically and financially for virtual care. They’re figuring out what a hybrid model means to them and their patients in the process — as well as when to leverage telehealth versus in-person visits.
Is Telehealth Additive or Substitutive?
Although telehealth options existed in the 2010s, it was the 2020 pandemic that triggered patients and providers to flock to them. However, the lockdowns have lifted, and people are returning to normal life. This changes the dynamic of virtual healthcare.
Physical care will never go away, but telehealth is proving just as pivotal. Healthcare professionals must consider several factors to determine whether they should use telehealth as a substitute or an additive measure. These factors include:
1. The type of care being provided.
The type of care being provided is a major determining factor in what type of contact is necessary. Some types of care — such as consultations and follow-up visits — might be more easily provided via telehealth. Meanwhile, surgeries and other hands-on procedures require in-person visits.
2. The patient’s medical condition.
A patient’s medical condition also plays a critical role in whether to use telehealth. Certain conditions — such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and other chronic or debilitating diseases — require ongoing monitoring and management. It isn’t feasible for patients to come in every day when virtual care solutions will benefit their overall health and well-being.
3. The patient’s location.
Telehealth could substitute in-person care in situations where the patient lives in a rural or underserved area. It’s also vital in areas where travel is difficult. The ability to speak with a healthcare professional on demand in these areas can be a major boon and make the difference between life and death.
4. The patient’s preference.
Patient preference is ultimately going to drive telehealth. Some patients prefer virtual care due to convenience, comfort, or other personal factors. Others might eschew these technologies due to technology concerns. However, these concerns can be relieved with an innovative solution that provides a seamless patient experience.
One should also consider the availability of resources and technologies. For example, if a healthcare facility has the necessary equipment, trained staff, and IT support, it is more likely to use telehealth as an additive measure. Lacking these resources means a facility might only use telehealth as a substitute.
Ultimately, each patient requires an individual care plan, typically including a hybrid model of both in-person visits and telehealth. However, some situations are more suitable for virtual care.
When Telehealth Is a Substitute
Telehealth is a substitute for in-person care in a variety of situations, including consultations with healthcare providers. An in-person visit is unnecessary for non-urgent medical issues, such as follow-up visits, prescription renewals, and other routine care. It’s also preferable for physical therapy sessions and exercises, allowing individuals to receive care from the comfort of their own homes.
Mental health counseling is another prime telehealth use case. In-patient care might be used for extreme cases, such as drug and alcohol dependencies or suicidal tendencies, but talking to someone on the phone or via video calls can be life-changing in many cases, especially in underserved areas.
When Telehealth Is Additive
Although it’s helpful in many cases, sometimes telehealth can only be an additive measure to in-person care. This includes post-surgery rehabilitation or any follow-up visits after in-patient treatment already took place. After a patient is discharged from the hospital, telehealth can be used to ensure they stay healthy during recovery.
Telehealth is also useful in prenatal care for expectant mothers, including regular check-ins and consultations with healthcare providers. It’s preferable to give birth in a sterile hospital setting, but telehealth can also be used in an emergency.
Telehealth is and will continue to be an important part of holistic healthcare. Providers that adopt a hybrid model that leverages their available resources most efficiently will be set up for long-term success.