LANSING, Mich. — Fears about the coronavirus (COVID-19), including how easily it can be transmitted and its deadly impact on vulnerable populations, are, perhaps, spreading faster than the virus itself. According to Johns Hopkins University, there are now 1,323 confirmed cases and 38 deaths from coronavirus in the U.S.  

The advice offered from health experts is to wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, and to practice “social distancing” tactics like canceling events or working from home. Another answer many are now proposing is to place more emphasis on telehealth rather than face-to-face doctor visits.

By using telehealth applications, doctors can diagnose patients remotely, prescribe medicine, and have it delivered to a patient’s front door. This means someone who may be infected does not have go out. In essence, practicing telemedicine can actually help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a series of recommendations to help communities prepare for the potential spread of coronavirus. They include “leveraging existing telehealth tools to direct people to the right level of health care for their medical needs.”

Telehealth comes in many forms. Connected Nation (CN), through its state program Connected Nation Michigan (CN Michigan), released a groundbreaking study that closely examined the use and perceptions of telehealth in rural areas with a focus on five Michigan counties. Through that study, researchers found that accessing a website is the most popular way to use telehealth (36%), followed by interacting via email (34%), text messaging (17%), mobile apps (12%), video conferencing (4%), and social media (4%).

The study also found that adults age 65 and older are the most likely to benefit from remote monitoring applications. These include remote heart, blood pressure, and blood sugar monitoring as well as electronic reminders to take medicine. Despite those benefits, this same age group is the least likely to communicate with health care providers online, in part due to concerns about the privacy of their online information.

However, if we can remove the barriers to expanding telehealth and alleviate individual concerns and understanding about its use, we can help protect more people and respond more effectively to public health concerns. Among the counties surveyed, researchers found that one in seven households said accessing information online prevented trips to the doctor or medical center. In addition, one in five (21%) of those who have not used a telehealth application would do so if their health care provider offered one.

But telehealth is not just a temporary fix for the current health crisis — it can mean long-term improvement on health services, especially in rural areas. Researchers also found, among other things, the highest ratios in the country of patients per doctor, a lower-than-average life expectancy, and a higher-than-average number of preventable hospital stays in rural states with restrictive telehealth policies.

Put another way, those states that have more progressive and open approaches to funding and supporting telehealth are doing more to improve the overall health and life expectancies of constituents. There are barriers that can be addressed to improve and expand telehealth in those states that have restrictive or moderate policies.

The Three Challenges for Telehealth

The study found that three major challenges affect rural health networks: a lack of funding for program expansion, the need for improved broadband (high-speed internet) access, and disparate reimbursement from insurance and Medicaid telehealth services.

The funding challenge is something that both private and public entities must take on to improve telehealth. In the study, CN Michigan’s researchers learned that telehealth can lead to massive savings once it’s in place. In the five counties surveyed, telehealth usage represents a savings of nearly $4.7 million per year, just for 15-minute visits to general practitioners. In addition, calculating for time spent between travel, waiting rooms, and doctors’ visits themselves, this represents nearly $1 million ($985,000) in lost productivity per year per county, totaling a savings of $5.7 million per year in these five counties alone.

Another issue is the need for improved broadband access and speed that can better support telehealth applications and usage. Connected Nation has been working to improve broadband access, adoption, and use in every community for nearly two decades. In the last two years, this technology has gone from being viewed as a privilege to a necessity — and lawmakers are taking action. From more than $500 million in loans and grants for rural broadband offered through the USDA’s ReConnect Program to the just passed Broadband DATA Act, there has been forward momentum on connecting rural areas across the country.

At the same time, Congress is attempting to address this issue of reimbursement for using telehealth in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Lawmakers passed H.R. 6074, which has been dubbed the “Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Act, 2020.” The Act temporarily waives restrictions on billing Medicare for telehealth services during emergency periods. It is now on President Donald Trump’s desk awaiting his signature. So, in other words, in emergency areas and time periods, seniors will be able to use more telehealth services and get them covered by Medicare.

Telehealth applications represent more than a quick fix to avoid a particularly nasty virus. They are the newest way that technology and medicine are merging and they can have long-lasting impacts in the way Americans seek out medical care.

From increasing access to medical experts around the globe to keeping students engaged during times of illness through distance learning, broadband technology has the ability to completely alter the way we look at our health. This can only be accomplished, though, if forward-thinking policymakers look beyond the current short-term crisis to imagine the truly transformational power of telehealth.

For the Connected Nation’s new report on telehealth applications, click here.