As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on, the global community is coming to terms with its impact across industries and businesses. While sectors such as supply chain, aviation, hospitality, and manufacturing were severely hit, they have been limping towards recovery in their own way.

But if one was to single out a sector that was in the thick of the action, with little to no prep to handle a crisis of this scale, it has to be healthcare. COVID-19 brought forth rapid and unexpected variables, the likes of which no existing crisis plans and teams were prepared to handle. The healthcare systems across the world had to transform to adapt to a novel way of functioning that was enabled by technology.

Telemedicine or telehealth was a crucial tool in this process that helped limit the spread of the virus and enabled healthcare professionals to effectively manage their time and contain their burden.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention along with state public health agencies, several European Union countries, and China modified existing rules and regulations to boost the utilization of telehealth services and singled out telehealth to be a part of the response to the novel coronavirus. As a result, an increasing number of patients are connecting with their doctors using video conferencing technology via their mobile phones, tablets, or computers.

In the United States alone it was reported that at least 10 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth since early March, compared with about 13,000 weekly appointments in the pre-pandemic times.

COVID-19: The Unlikely Enabler of Telehealth Technology

laptop with mask-Telehealth in healthcare

The pandemic singularly led to a massive acceleration in the use of telehealth, especially for a technology that was always considered peripheral in healthcare delivery. Consumer adoption of telehealth applications boomed, from 11% of US consumers using telehealth in 2019 to 46% in 2020.

Providers rapidly scaled offerings, seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before. Pre-COVID-19, the total annual revenues of US telehealth players were an estimated $3 billion, with major vendors focusing on the “virtual urgent care” segment: helping consumers get on-demand instant telehealth visits with physicians. With the acceleration of consumer and provider adoption of telehealth and extension of telehealth beyond virtual urgent care, an estimated $250 billion of current US healthcare could be earmarked for virtualization

Making Telehealth Mainstream

Unlike any other sector, telehealth poses a unique challenge with its complex web of stakeholders involved, including the government, healthcare providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, and pharmacies. Notably, there also exists a gap between consumers’ interest in telehealth (76%) and actual usage (46%). Factors such as lack of awareness of telehealth offerings, education on types of care needs that could be met virtually, and understanding of insurance coverage are some of the drivers of this gap.

However, recent mandates from the US Federal Government indicate that telehealth is not only a viable option, it is the only way for the populations to address their health concerns as per the new normal. Provisions of the recent Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020 cover telehealth access for nearly 62 million Medicare beneficiaries in the US.

UX designers are aware of how people’s experiences across industries F&B, hospitality, travel, finance, and more are elevating their expectations of the healthcare industry. Additionally, major healthcare giants are reinventing themselves through acquisitions and partnerships to address the healthcare system’s legacy issues. Examples include CVS’s acquisition of Aetna, along with JP Morgan Chase, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway partnering to create Haven.

The state government of California signed the Community Paramedicine or Triage to Alternate Destination Act of 2020. The law permits local EMS providers to develop community paramedicine programs, which could use telehealth or mHealth tools to triage 911 calls at home and divert patients from hospital ERs to more appropriate care providers.

UX Opportunities in Telehealth

  • Create more efficient and accessible appointment opportunities
  • Connect EHR data to provide better context
  • Enable collaboration between providers with a shared record
  • Make accessibility a priority, consider needs of the elderly and differently-abled
  • Enhance provider-patient communication post-procedure
  • Minimize communication barriers by including real-time translation and transcription services
  • Integrate with wearable medical devices
  • Offer provider-led, web-based wellness programs

The growth of telehealth is inevitable in the foreseeable future. As designers, we need to create products that solidify users’ trust and establish telehealth as a long-term healthcare solution.

Going beyond the pandemic, it is essential for the healthcare design community to evaluate and restructure the way we create our solutions. If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is that digital technology is indispensable for healthcare systems that have been stretched beyond their capacities. Digital health solutions have now gone beyond being an idyllic aspiration to an absolute necessity.