Health matters: Telehealth, the future of medicine, now. Or is it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the growth of telehealth, defined as the provision of health care remotely using telecommunications technology. Historically telehealth had been mostly limited to consultations between hospitals (e.g., tele-stroke and tele-radiology services). In 2018, only 0.1% of all medical visits were virtual; providers believed that in-person care was inherently better, insurers were reluctant to pay, and regulators worried about privacy and confidentiality. When COVID-19 hit the U.S., most in-person medical visits were canceled, and an alternative was urgently needed. Federal and state governments mandated that insurance cover telehealth and waived HIPAA requirements. In May of 2020, half of all patient visits were virtual. Telehealth emerged from the lockdown as a $250 billion industry, brimming with entrepreneurship and hundreds of telehealth platforms that are projected to log a total of one billion appointments by the end of the year. It’s important we make sense of such a sudden disruptive innovation in health care, so let’s break down the good and bad.