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COVID-19 changed health care. But will the changes outlast the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to adjust more quickly than we’ve ever had to in recent memory. At every level of the health care industry, we had to take extraordinary measures to save lives – including making telehealth a priority. And members took note. Telehealth visits exploded, increasing by more than 7,500 percent in the early months of the pandemic according to internal data accessed January, 2021.

Clearly, the way we provide care to patients has changed. But will this change outlast the pandemic?

The rise of telehealth

Both health care providers and patients are embracing the potential of telehealth. Early in the pandemic, it became one of the best – and only – ways for people to stay connected with their doctors without risking their safety through in-person visits.

Many people might have been skeptical of virtual care when COVID-19 first hit. Most people preferred in-person visits, and many had never tried telehealth before.  Even though Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) has covered telehealth for more than 20 years, many providers elected not to use it.

But challenges often lead to opportunities. More clinics began to adopt this technology, and more patients began to explore telehealth as an easy, affordable option.

We hope we will see an end to the pandemic sometime in the next year. But we are committed to ensuring our customers have access to telehealth beyond the pandemic, as well.

One area where telehealth has been particularly helpful is in behavioral health.  Behavioral health providers are using virtual visits far more than specialty providers, and telehealth visits for behavioral health care don’t show any signs of slowing down. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress, anxiety and depression for millions of people across the country, and indeed, around the world. Maintaining physical distance is critical during a pandemic, but that kind of separation can exacerbate existing behavioral and mental health issues, including substance use disorders. Blue Cross NC has encouraged members who’ve previously received behavioral health services to ask their providers if virtual visits are an option.

Many people prefer the personal relationship and familiar interaction of in-person health care visits, but I certainly think telehealth will continue to provide a great alternative option for patients who still don’t feel comfortable or are uncertain about going into their doctor's offices.

Will telehealth outlast COVID-19?

In December, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that many of the expanded telehealth services it’s covering due to COVID-19 will be permanently covered after the pandemic. It will continue to be an important tool for customers to access care even as in-person visits continue to rise back to pre-pandemic levels.

However, we must address several issues before telemedicine can become a lasting fixture of the health care system. First, it must remain affordable and continue as a tool that improves health, increases access to health care, and lowers costs for members. It’s important that telehealth visits match the health care system as it moves to value-based care. Second, improvements in available software and applications are needed. Reliable broadband connectivity must also drastically improve, especially in rural areas. Health technology companies and state and federal agencies will also have to increase collaboration to address patient concerns about their personal privacy.

Being a part of the Blue Cross NC team has allowed me to see firsthand the commitment our organization places on fostering innovation to make sure we’re meeting the extraordinary needs of our members.

The urgency of dealing with the pandemic has brought a new level of collaboration to health care, with doctors, hospitals, insurers and others finding creative ways to work together. We’ll continue collaborating with our provider partners to make sure virtual health care remains affordable for our members as we work towards better, simpler health care in North Carolina.

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD
Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD

Medical Director

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD, is a medical director at Blue Cross NC. She 'ss responsible for the evaluation of the medical necessity, appropriateness and efficiency of the use of health care services, procedures, prescription drugs and facilities under the provisions of the applicable health benefits plan.

Before joining Blue Cross NC, she worked in a private practice doing acute and chronic pain management.

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