Mar 4, 2021 - Technology

Virtual doctor's visits and digital health tools take off in pandemic

Illustration of a doctor's bag with stethoscope featuring a computer mouse at the end

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Telemedicine and other health-related technologies have gotten huge boosts over the past year as COVID-19 upended how patients receive medical attention.

Why it matters: Virtual doctor's appointments and therapy sessions will likely be the norm, even after more people are vaccinated.

The big picture: "Telehealth" and "e-health" tools have been available for over a decade, but patients and doctors alike were reluctant to give up in-person appointments.

  • That all changed when doctors offices and hospitals were forced to adapt to new technologies quickly to keep seeing patients amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

By the numbers: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center CEO Michael Fisher said the hospital system went from 2,000 telehealth visits in all of 2019 to more than 5,000 a week in July 2020, per an interview with McKinsey.

  • Telehealth, Fisher said, could make up 30% of all healthcare visits in the future.
  • The number of telehealth medical claims increased 3,060% (or 31-fold) nationally from October 2019 to October 2020, according to FAIR Health's regional tracker.
  • "In Japan, fewer than 1,000 institutions offered remote care in 2018. By July 2020, more than 16,000 did," McKinsey notes.

It's been a boon for the tech companies that make the virtual doctor's visits possible.

  • Google-backed AmWell, a digital service that connects doctors with patients, went public in September, per Barron's.
  • MDLive, a large telehealth service, said virtual visits nearly doubled in the first half of 2020, and behavioral health visits increased 500%. Last week the company, valued around $1 billion, announced it will be acquired by Cigna subsidiary Evernorth.
  • Teladoc Health nearly doubled its revenue in 2020, while reporting more than 10.5 million virtual visits (a 156% increase over 2019), per MobiHealthNews.
  • Digital pharmacies, chronic care platforms, test kit apps and portals where patients can track their health details have also proliferated.

Health-tech startups are seeing an influx of investor interest — in unexpected places.

  • In an analysis of more than 35,000 companies across 27 regions, venture capital firm Telstra Ventures found health tech startups saw the largest growth in year-over-year deal flow, with a 24% increase in 2020.
  • A trio of Utah cities — Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden — saw the biggest spike in attracting health tech investments, with an estimated 200% increase over 2019.
  • Atlanta (114%) and Columbus, Ohio (89%) rounded out the top 3 markets for health tech, per Telstra's analysis.

Context: In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued emergency waivers to allow patients to use telehealth services from home and allowed doctors to be paid for virtual visits. Some in Congress are trying to make those changes permanent.

The other side: Like most uses of technology, digital healthcare tools are not evenly distributed or adopted.

  • Older patients are less comfortable using virtual tools to interact with doctors, and those with lower incomes are less likely to have access to reliable internet service to make virtual visits possible.
  • The use of video visits was lower among lower-income, Black and Hispanic, older and Spanish-speaking patients during COVID-19, largely due to clinic and practice factors, according to research in the American Journal of Managed Care.

Between the lines: Seeing a doctor via video is safer and quicker than in-person appointments, and it has allowed people to receive medical treatment during the global pandemic.

  • Still, speaking to a doctor over a video chat app can feel sterile and impersonal, and doctors can't physically examine you.
  • Some patients worry about privacy when it comes to discussing sensitive matters or mental health issues virtually.
Go deeper