Americans are using telehealth services 38 times more than before the pandemic, according to a new Clearsurance report, Telemedicine and Health Insurance. The sharp increase is primarily due to statewide lockdowns and social distancing.

Since the pandemic began, many employers have added telehealth benefits to their insurance plans, allowing workers to see a medical provider remotely. Clearsurance says the rise in “virtual medicine” is beneficial, reducing healthcare costs and increasing access to physical and mental health treatments. 

Here’s a closer look at how telemedicine can shape the future of health insurance. 

Telemedicine Skyrocketed During the Pandemic

Telemedicine usage increased 13% to 17% across all specialties during the pandemic. One of the most significant jumps in virtual healthcare has been mental health care.

The number of virtual urgent care centers and hybrid models has grown rapidly across the country. And investors have been pouring three times as much capital into the telemedicine industry as they did in 2017.

Clearsurance says one of the biggest challenges the telemedicine industry faces is the need for more inclusive health insurance plans.

Insurers Are Releasing “Virtual-First” Healthcare Plans

Many insurers have added virtual visits to their healthcare plans. For example, Aetna and United Healthcare allow policyholders convenient access to remote care, including seeing their doctor or speaking with a nurse anytime online.

But at least one insurer has taken it a step further by creating the first-ever “virtual-first” healthcare plan. Patients initially meet with a physician online. Then, that physician treats you or refers you to an in-person office for additional care.

Benefits of a “Virtual-First” Healthcare Plan

There are obvious benefits to a virtual-first health plan. First, Clearsurance says insurance premiums may be lower, and patients may even have copays reduced or waived for virtual visits. There’s also the convenience of seeing a doctor anytime you need care without leaving your home or arranging childcare.

Drawbacks of a “Virtual-First” Healthcare Plan

Clearsurance says although virtual-first healthcare plans are convenient, they have downsides. One is that patients may rarely or never visit a doctor in person if they’re getting care online.

Dr. David Anderson, a cardiologist affiliated with Stanford Health Care, told Clearsurance, “There’s a gestalt of seeing a patient and knowing something is not right, such as maybe picking up early on that they have Parkinson’s, or listening to their heart and discovering a murmur.”

There’s also the need to transfer records from one clinic to another if a patient gets referred to an in-person provider. Clearsurance says that the process can sometimes be prone to error. Still, a virtual-first healthcare plan is worth exploring, especially for families who need access to affordable healthcare.

More People Are Using Telemedicine for Mental Health Treatments

There’s been a significant focus on mental health as many Americans have been on lockdown during the pandemic. The World Health Organization says telemedicine could be a powerful tool to improve people’s access to mental healthcare nationwide.

One study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 40% of employers with at least 50 employees added mental health benefits to their healthcare plans at the start of the pandemic. And according to another study, 38% of the largest employers saw a rise in the use of mental health benefits. The data suggest that employees are willing to use telehealth services.

The Future of Telemedicine

Telemedicine existed before the pandemic, but statewide lockdowns caused its usage to skyrocket. Clearsurance says there’s no denying that the services have given thousands access to critical medical care when they need it most.

There’s no telling what the future holds, but telemedicine will likely continue to shape the healthcare industry as more employers add the  benefits to their insurance plans. Additionally, more insurers may prioritize “virtual-first” services before in-person healthcare treatments. 

Read Clearsurance’s complete report: Could Telemedicine Change the Future of Health Insurance?

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