After a seismic shift from in-person to virtual care in the spring of 2020, telehealth volumes have dropped from their peak and stabilized at a new version of normal, proving what healthcare providers in Northeast Ohio hypothesized from the early days of COVID-19: The use of telehealth will never return to pre-pandemic levels.
Virtual care has secured a place in healthcare access and delivery.
"And everybody's trying to figure out what that place is," said Dr. Vik Bhalla, chief medical officer of Summa Health Medical Group.
The role of telehealth in part will be determined by the decisions payers and regulators make in the coming months as temporary flexibilities they offered, which helped hospitals adapt to the skyrocketing need for virtual care, taper off and expire.
Given the dramatic growth in patient demand — and what is now a patient expectation — for telehealth, Northeast Ohio hospitals are preparing to continue offering virtual options and, in some cases, are looking to innovate with that technology.
The proliferation of telehealth in the past year-and-a-half, though it occurred under awful circumstances, has allowed healthcare providers an opportunity to explore new ways to better reach patients virtually, said Dr. Steven Shook, the Cleveland Clinic's lead for virtual health.
"We're just really excited to have had this opportunity to kind of stretch our wings here and try some different ways to connect with patients," he said, adding that the system is continuing to listen to both patients and providers to see where else to take the technology to best serve patients.
Before March of 2020, telehealth was a small portion of the work at University Hospitals, with less than 11,000 virtual visits in 2019. Last year, the system recorded more than 417,000. And in the first six months of 2021, there were more than 176,000, indicating telehealth is here to stay, said Stacy Porter, UH's vice president for Consumer Centric Strategy.
The Cleveland Clinic leapt from roughly 37,000 virtual visits in 2019 to 1.2 million in 2020. Though it is fully open for in-person care, the Clinic anticipates 20% of visits this year will be virtual.
Before the pandemic, Summa Health hadn't used telehealth beyond a retail platform for acute care. It wasn't part of the continuity of care or in use for primary care or specialty visits. After a rapid system-wide implementation of telehealth in the spring of 2020, roughly 60% of visits with Summa Health's medical providers were virtual during the peak last year. Now, it's closer to 5%, and Bhalla estimates that the norm will remain between 5% and 10% going forward.