3 ways COVID-19 is changing health care – now and in the future

As we continue to navigate the deep impacts of COVID-19, one thing seems certain — the pandemic has changed the way many of us have traditionally viewed and engaged with the health care system.

Many times, crises create an urgency to speed up innovations in order to meet the demands and needed convenience of consumers in transition. COVID-19 has led to three emerging trends that may usher in permanent changes to the ways we access health care services.

1. Accelerated adoption of telehealth

The convenience of telehealth has always been apparent, yet adoption rates weren’t widespread – until now. Many health plans are encouraging the use of virtual visits to help keep people safe in their homes during the pandemic, which may have helped introduce the convenience to a widespread audience. 

Even specialty care is leveraging telehealth through prenatal visits and more recently, UnitedHealthcare has made physical, occupation and speech therapies available. 

“There was no urgency with telehealth before and now it’s been accelerated in a good way. We’re finding the house can be the extension of the doctor’s office by the experiences we’re having now,” said Jean-François Beaulé, executive vice president of design and innovation, UnitedHealth Group. 

The push toward contactless care is likely to continue through virtual appointments in primary care, urgent care, disease management and behavioral health. 

2. Growth in home-based care through digital health and home health services
Similar to how telehealth enables efficient and accessible care, the response to the pandemic has created momentum around the concept of a patient’s home as a site for medical services. This idea relies heavily on the adoption of technology and advanced digital tools. Some areas where home-health is advancing include:

  • Chronic disease management
    Advanced home care — managed by a care team with remote-monitoring tools, like continuous glucose monitors (CGM) and activity trackers — may help individuals manage chronic conditions. 

    Diabetes and congestive heart failure are two conditions that can currently be digitally monitored. Members are able to sync their devices to track progress, check their health data in real time, send and receive messages from a nurse care coach and share progress with their doctor. This helps address long periods of ongoing care. 
  • Infusion services
    For patients who need certain medications, home infusion services may be a dependable way to reduce public exposure risk, especially during COVID-19. Typically, a nurse will come to the home and train the patient or caregiver on how to administer the drug. They’ll also provide information on how the drug should work and any side effects that may occur.

    When infusion services are performed in the home, it may help patients receive the critical therapies they need without having to manage the travel and logistical concerns associated with leaving home to visit a clinic or hospital.

    Moving the site of care to the home may also be an opportunity to save money by avoiding the overhead costs of an in-patient hospital setting. By improving continuity of care, patients may be able to avoid adverse events that may lead to readmissions to the hospital.

    “We could also see more oncology care being moved in the comfort of the home. This would be especially important for patients who are immunocompromised and still need treatment,” said Susan Maddux, chief pharmacy officer, UnitedHealthcare. 

3. The expanding role and scope of pharmacists as care providers 
Pharmacists may continue to play an important role in a care team beyond medication management. When providers were closed, retail pharmacists filled a gap in care. Pharmacy drive-through windows, telehealth options and home delivery allow consumers to stick to their medication routines with less contact.  

“Pharmacists are integrating with behavioral health more, as well,” Maddux said. “We’re starting to look at a few things, including how we can help individuals with medication adherence and screening for depression through some of our pharmacies.” 

Even before the crisis, the scope of practice for pharmacists had expanded. But similar to the momentum around telehealth and home-based care, there’s an evolving definition of what being a pharmacist can mean. 

While health care may never look the same, these trends that help increase flexibility, access and health management may help more people get the services they need to live healthier lives.