Is telehealth the ‘future of healthcare’ or will the added access disappear with the pandemic?

Local News

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Telehealth was a rather niche service before COVID-19 came into the picture in early 2020.

By mid-2020, 95% of the healthcare facilities reported using telehealth, compared to the 43% that were capable of providing it in 2019, according to Health Center Program Data. (You can find the full CDC report here.)

But as we wrap up 2021, the use of telehealth decreased significantly from the height of the pandemic in Central Illinois, as more people regain confidence about going into the doctor’s office.

So the question is: Will telehealth start to disappear alongside the end of the pandemic?

Some hospitals are unsure how much they’ll continue to offer it, while others are making it a big part of their future strategy to make access to the healthcare professional you need available from the most secluded parts of the state, virtually in an instant.

OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center in Urbana has provided specialized telehealth services for more than ten years, according to president Jared Rogers. For example, the hospital offers quick access to a neurologist following a stroke through its program “Telestroke”.

“You know, besides the telehealth that’s been around for decades with the telephone, which really is kind of telehealth,” Rogers added.

However, before the pandemic, patients were connected to virtual specialists from the hospital, not from home.

“That changed with COVID,” Rogers explained. “…And you can now get reimbursed for those visits, it certainly supports it to develop much more widely.”

Across the board, the pandemic forced facilities to expand telehealth and make it more user-friendly.

Decatur Memorial Hospital now offers urgent care and on-demand visits from your phone.

Also in Decatur, HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital got creative with donated iPads early in the pandemic so sick patients could communicate with healthcare staff without contact.

“Before the pandemic, the rules were a lot more restrictive in that the home was not a place where you could conduct these virtual visits,” explained Julie Edwards, The Director of Virtual Health for Carle Foundation Hospital.

She said those federal regulations relaxed with COVID-19, but whether that will be the case in a post-pandemic world remains to be seen.

“We don’t know yet, but things are leaning that way,” Edwards added.

“A lot of people say you can’t put the genie back in the bottle once you’ve allowed it can’t go back.”

About 60% of Carle Hospital’s appointments were virtual in the first few months of the pandemic, according to Edwards. Lately, that’s down to about 10 to 20%.

Interest in telehealth appointments has also decreased at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon. The hospital covers a rural part of the state with services as far south as Effingham and Jasper counties. There, outpatient telehealth is available twice a week.

“I think there’s a little bit of something to be desired in a virtual visit versus actually sitting in an office,” shared Dwight Pentzien, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.

But for those living nowhere near a clinic, chronic health management requires a lot of travel.

“Certainly, and some of the chronic patients that you talk about might have some mobility issues that make it harder to leave their home and get to an appointment, so that definitely is one of the things that we consider with our tele-visits,” Pentzien added.

Despite the waning interest, Edwards said telehealth is an essential part of the future of medical care.

Carle recently got a $544,000 in a USDA grant to continue expanding rural access through telehealth.
The hospital is using the money to set up telehealth for the first time in a southeastern section of the state.

“Providers are really migrating out of the rural communities and into more urban areas requiring, I mean in some instances, telemedicine providers are the only providers that they have in certain specialties. So yes, I mean that was happening even before the pandemic, and the pandemic really brought that need and that lack of, especially specialty care, to the forefront.”

Rogers says if interest continues to decline at OSF, the hospital will reduce the resources going into telehealth but he expects it to be around for the long term.

“There’s a significant setup fee, you know, you have to have the technology and, but after that, it’s much less expensive than doing it in person,” he expressed.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.