Four Ways COVID-19 is Changing Health Care - Now and in the Future


As Tennessee and the nation continue to navigate the deep impacts of COVID-19, one thing seems certain -- the pandemic has changed the way many of us have traditionally viewed and engaged with the health care system.

Many times, crises create an urgency to speed up innovations in order to meet consumers' demands and provide convenience. COVID-19 has led to a few emerging trends that may usher in permanent changes to the ways we access health care.

Telehealth is here to stay.

Telehealth wasn't new prior to COVID-19, but fewer people were using it before the pandemic. Now many health insurance plans have encouraged the use of virtual visits as an alternative to visiting health care facilities in person, and we're seeing adoption accelerate.

Through June, we've seen 10 times as many telehealth visits as we did all of last year. Even specialty care is leveraging telehealth through prenatal visits, and more recently UnitedHealthcare has made physical, occupational and speech therapies available.

The push toward contactless care is likely to continue through virtual appointments in primary care, urgent care, disease management and behavioral health.

More people will receive care at home.

Similar to how telehealth enables efficient and accessible care at home, the response to the pandemic has created momentum around the concept of a patient's home as a site for medical services. This idea relies heavily on the adoption of technology and advanced digital tools. Some areas where home-health is advancing are chronic disease management and infusion services.

For example, diabetes and congestive heart failure are two chronic conditions that can currently be monitored with the help of digital remote-monitoring tools like continuous glucose monitors (CGM) and activity trackers. Members are able to sync their devices to track progress, check their health data in real time, send and receive messages from a nurse care coach and share progress with their doctor. This helps address long periods of ongoing care.

And for patients who need certain medications, home infusion services may be a dependable way to reduce public exposure risk, especially during COVID-19. Typically, a nurse will come to the home and train the patient or caregiver on how to administer the drug. When infusion services are performed in the home, it may help patients receive the critical therapies they need without having to manage the travel and logistical concerns associated with leaving home to visit a clinic or hospital.

Moving the site of care to the home may also be an opportunity to save money by avoiding the overhead costs of an in-patient hospital setting. By improving continuity of care, patients may be able to avoid adverse events that may lead to readmissions to the hospital. We could also see more oncology care being moved to the comfort of the home. This would be especially important for patients who are immunocompromised and still need treatment.

The role of a pharmacist is changing.

Pharmacists play an important role beyond medication management in a care team. When doctor's offices were closed or not available, some pharmacists could fill a gap in care.

Even before the crisis, some states had expanded the scope of practice for pharmacists. A few states have given pharmacists limited prescribing authority, and more than 800 pharmacists in the United States are board-certified in infectious diseases.

Pharmacists are also integrating more with behavioral health. We're starting to look at a few things, including how we can help individuals with medication adherence and screening for depression through some of our pharmacies. But similar to the momentum around telehealth and home-based care, there's an evolving definition of what being a pharmacist can mean.

Americans may live healthier lifestyles.

COVID-19 represents a convergence of current and long-term threats to the health of individuals and their families. A number of chronic conditions -- many of which are preventable and can be treated -- are risk factors for falling severely ill to COVID-19. In addition, maintaining a strong immune system is seemingly more important than ever to avoid contracting or overcoming the coronavirus.

In addition, there's a heightened awareness that cleanliness and hygiene practices can keep people healthier and avoid the spread of disease -- expanding the notion of good health to include cleanliness of the things people interact with each day.

If the momentum continues to shift toward greater health ownership, the pandemic has brought forth advances that could support this renewed focus on health and well-being.

Looking ahead

COVID-19 has changed several aspects of health care, some for the better. These trends can help increase flexibility, convenience and access and may help more people get the care they need to live healthier lives.

Steve Wilson is the CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Tennessee


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