Telehealth can be a useful tool for health care organizations – including home-based care providers – looking to beef up their resources and increase access to care. But virtual care still has its limitations.
That’s one key takeaway from a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin published in Information Systems Research.
The study found that telehealth utilization did not result in significant cost reductions, or lower emergency rooms (ER) visits.
“People believed that telehealth would be the next big thing, the future of health care,” Indranil Bardhan, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, said in a press statement. “But our research shows that its impact is not as straightforward as people might think. It’s more nuanced.”
Indeed, researchers found that individuals with infections or heart and lung diseases faced challenges when it came to communicating symptoms.
Additionally, doctors had a difficult time observing these individuals’ symptoms virtually.
Dr. Lyle Berkowitz, CEO of virtual care company KeyCare, believes that telehealth is useful for certain cases.
“For a certain number of cases, it absolutely leads to cost savings, and decreased ER visits or even urgent care, outpatient ambulatory type visits,” he told Home Health Care News. “The classic example is for mild urgent care cases, a sinus infection, a cold, a question about COVID, a UTI or a rash. These are all things that if you’re gone into the office versus a telehealth visit, you’d probably get some similar answers regarding prescription and management.”
What’s more, the study found that individuals seeking treatment for behavioral health, metabolic disorders, dermatology and musculoskeletal disorders benefited most from telehealth.
Berkowitz pointed out that telehealth can help increase access to care.
“For a lot of people, particularly those who are in a lower socioeconomic class, it’s not easy to get to the doctor,” he said. “Doctors are open nine to five, and they can’t easily get out of work and go to see the doctor. But if there was a telehealth doctor available for them that they could visit from the comfort of their home, that is going to allow them to avoid the use of an emergency room.”
Still, Berkowitz cautioned against viewing telehealth as a panacea for lowering costs and utilization.
“Telehealth alone doesn’t solve the problem, we have to think about the use of telehealth in a way that helps manage a population,” he said. “It’s really population health that can create big cost savings over time by triaging everybody to the appropriate level of care.”
Berkowitz believes that home-based care providers have a role to play in improving the efficiency of telehealth use.
“The important thing is that some aspects of their patients’ health can and should be done online and in the home,” he said. “Home health care workers can actually really be immensely helpful to the doctors who are taking care of these patients. With everything from making sure that the technology is set up, sort of like the Geek Squad for telehealth in the home, to getting vital signs and giving input as to how the patient’s doing.”