BURLINGTON, Vt. – Telehealth visits are surging during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as doctors and patients adapt to remote appointments, it’s becoming apparent that they may be here to stay.
“About 80 percent of our visits are using telemedicine, and 20 percent are in person,” said Todd Young, Director of Telehealth Services for the UVM Health Network. “We’re seeing projections in primary care to be roughly 60 percent telehealth to 40 percent in person after COVID-19.”
Prior to the pandemic, the UVM Health Network averaged roughly 60 telehealth visits a week. Now, they’re handling about 6,000. Tuesday alone accounted for 1400 visits.
Fortunately for Young and the UVM Health Network, plans to expand telehealth had been underway before COVID-19 arrived.
“We were slowly ramping up, and that’s why it was really easy for us to scale it once COVID-19 came,” Young said. “All of our primary care offices prior to COVID-19 could do video visits.”
Several months ago, however, there wasn’t any widespread usage of telehealth. When it became a necessity, Young was interested in its effectiveness for both doctors and patients.
“It’s kind of forced both parties to actually use it, and they’re finding that they really, really like it,” Young said.
The Community Health Centers of Burlington recently expanded telehealth services as well. Right now, 85 percent of their scheduled visits are happening remotely.
Dr. Heather Stein, Medical Director of CHCB, said convenience hasn’t been the only benefit of telehealth.
“We’ve found that certain types of visits may even be better via telemedicine,” Dr. Stein said. “For people struggling with chronic pain, mental illness, or addiction treatment, it’s really valuable to be able to peer into their lives and see their interactions with family and pets, and how their home is structured.”
As telehealth expands, however, there’s concern that some won’t have access to it.
Lia Rubel is Vermont lead for the nonprofit group Telehealth Access for Seniors, which is working to ensure everyone has access.
“It’s especially important in Vermont to eliminate the barrier to access telehealth for rural, elderly and disabled patients,” Rubel said. “I’m currently partnering with the White River Junction VA Medical Center, as they have an urgent need for 100 devices.”
Since telehealth has become the new normal, the UVM Health Network has been working with State and local governments on a plan to ensure its long-term viability.
“We have a pretty long list of asks,” Young said. “It’s about licensure, it’s about payment parity for the visits themselves, and about the scope of what providers can do with telehealth.”