URAC convened 500 health care leaders on a recent webinar to discuss how health care changed in 2020. Attendees engaged in conversation led by URAC’s President and CEO, Dr. Shawn Griffin and Dr. Vincent Nelson, Vice President of Medical Affairs for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA). Highlights of the conversation included discussion on how telehealth, technology, and health equity all played essential roles in health care changes during this momentous year.
Looking back to this time last year, Nelson pointed out BCBSA was indeed looking at telehealth and ways to promote its usage in the right situations. However, it was slow going. “There was not nearly as much adoption as we [had expected by that point] and we were looking at why doctors, providers and patients were not utilizing it much,” he said.
“Telemedicine was still a niche product” this time last year, agreed Griffin. Usage ramped up quickly during the early months of the pandemic. Telehealth went from “niche to front door” in a matter of months, he added. Prior to the pandemic, there had been a “very slow adoption rate,” Griffin said.
“What we call telehealth is now evolving beyond acute care,” Nelson said. Prior to the pandemic, “there wasn’t broad adoption of telehealth as a principal way to receive care” across the BCBSA network, he added. However, they’ve been tracking a significant uptick in telehealth usage and acceptance. “Over 60% of our members are now willing to engage” in telehealth. Nelson noted that millennials have even come to prefer telehealth in some cases, especially for some initial visits and ongoing behavioral health treatment programs.
Today, “employers want more robust offerings in telehealth,” Nelson said. “The trend lines are here,” he added.
“We’re going to have to get more sophisticated in our lexicon when describing telehealth,” Nelson told attendees. He called for more standards regarding what can and can’t be done effectively via telehealth. “We’re in the early innings of this journey, and we want to partner with accreditation organizations” to ensure quality is ensured in telehealth operations from the very outset, Nelson added.
“Accreditation guidelines for telehealth are where we need them to establish what’s proper in health care,” said Nelson.
“Regulations set the bar for safety and accreditation sets the bar for quality,” added Griffin. Noting that change is often difficult, Griffin maintained the telehealth technology is ready for prime time today. “It’s an adoption challenge,” he said. “We need to make certain telehealth is good medicine on a good platform” in part by adopting protocols and standards based on best practices and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelson and Griffin also discussed the extraordinary burden 2020 placed on at-home caregivers, and the heroic efforts of medical personnel to combat a powerful pandemic that uprooted day-to-day life, damaged the economy, and upset the very fabric of society as hospitals were overwhelmed by a deluge of patients.
Increasingly in 2020, “what had been done at a facility was now being done at home, often by a patient’s loved one [because of the] pandemic,” Nelson said.
“There were tremendous stresses on health care workers, too” Griffin said, citing personal health risk and isolation from families as just two glaring examples. “We’ve seen economic stresses, people losing health insurance because of job loss, it’s been very stressful for everybody,” Griffin said. “Even with vaccines, there’s still a dark winter ahead of us,” he added.
However, Nelson and Griffin shared a strong spirit of optimism when looking ahead to 2021.
“Technology unlocks a lot of capabilities, we’re going to see amazing things,” in the coming years, Nelson said. “I’m truly optimistic about what technology will bring to health care,” he added. “We have to make the system better for everyone, and technology will help make all of this happen.”
Noting 2020 was a time of “incredible pressure on people,” Griffin said technology helped close some of the health care gaps even as it exposed other shortcomings, such as lack of broadband access in rural and poor urban underserved areas. “I’m hopeful we’re going to be better people coming out of this,” he said.