The second blog post in our series on telehealth in the age of COVID-19 highlighted benefits associated with the practice, namely increased access to services, reduced stigma in using services, and improvements to client engagement and retention in services. In this third of fourth installment on telehealth, we examine challenges of more virtual and/or digital service delivery. Both benefits and challenges to telehealth should be considered as providers transition back to in-person offerings while retaining telehealth as an option for many patients or clients. COVID-19 may eventually leave, but it is likely telehealth will remain once the virus is gone.
Telehealth may expand service offerings, particularly in rural areas; however, rural populations more often experience such challenges as limited internet coverage or broadband/connectivity issues, and low-income persons in rural areas face additional challenges in accessing services via phone or computer (e.g., phone not equipped for internet access, etc.). While services may expand or more virtual/digital options can remove barriers like transportation, technological challenges to telehealth may persist for rural persons, and low-income persons in rural areas may continue to not receive needed services and care. The population of focus may determine who to prioritize for in-person versus digital or virtual service offerings.
Other pressing challenges to telehealth include compromised patient or client care, including lack of care continuity should patients or clients see different providers per each telehealth visit. Physical health providers have further cited the potential for misdiagnoses with telehealth, and behavioral health providers have indicated that some modalities and interventions simply do not translate to digital or virtual spaces (e.g., family-based care). Reimbursement and insurance issues and privacy concerns also persist for many providers.
In determining whether or not to use or continue use of telehealth post-COVID-19, providers may want to consider two things: populations and modalities or interventions best suited to telehealth. For example, persons with intensive physical or behavioral health needs may not be good candidates for telehealth, and individuals rather than families may be better served through virtual or digital interventions.