One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the wider adoption of virtual services for health care, which can help improve access to medical treatments and cut wait times for appointments.
The trend toward virtual care — also called telehealth — continues even as many aspects of life return to pre-pandemic norms. In one survey, 73% of people said they expect to get health care services virtually even after the pandemic ends.
Virtual care may be appealing for a variety of reasons, including improved convenience, affordability and access, especially for the 46 million Americans who live in rural areas.
“While many people once thought of virtual care as only an alternative to in-person urgent care, technology is making it possible to access many other services virtually,” said Dr. Donna O’Shea, chief medical officer of population health at UnitedHealthcare. “Virtual care has expanded from helping people who are already sick to detecting and preventing illnesses, and more effectively managing chronic conditions.”
Here are five emerging virtual care resources that Dr. O’Shea expects will continue to grow in importance and change how we receive health services:
- Primary care – This type of care can be an important part of getting and staying healthy. Unfortunately, the number of Americans with a primary care provider (PCP) has declined in recent years. To help reverse that trend, many PCPs are now offering convenient virtual care appointments. Some insurers have also introduced virtual-first health plans, where coordinated care begins virtually and connects to in-person services when necessary.
- Mental health – Virtual care for mental health is now widely available — an important development given the increase in anxiety and depression created by the pandemic. Approximately two-thirds of all behavioral health claims in 2021 were for virtual services, a sharp jump from before the pandemic.1 Increased access to care, more privacy and added convenience are among the often-cited advantages of virtual care for behavioral health needs.
- Physical therapy – For the 50% of U.S. adults affected by musculoskeletal issues such as back, knee or shoulder pain, physical therapy (PT) is often among the recommended initial treatments. In some cases, it can now happen virtually and with effectiveness that’s similar to in-person PT. To help make physical therapy support even more accessible, some virtual programs combine a smartphone’s front-facing camera and motion monitoring with artificial intelligence to provide on-demand exercise feedback, comparable to what may be shared during an in-person PT session.
- Dental care – Oral health issues rank among the most avoidable emergency room visits, in part because ERs are not usually equipped to handle dental problems. But in the past, if a painful toothache struck at night or over the weekend, it may have been difficult to know where to go for care, prompting some people to head to the ER. Today, virtual dental care may offer 24/7 access for advice about getting appropriate in-person care when needed, such as with a nearby dentist or a primary care doctor.
- Hearing health – Upwards of 48 million Americans have some level of hearing loss, and many of them will wait years before getting treatment. Virtual care for hearing loss may make it easier, more convenient and more affordable to find a fix — including by obtaining properly fitted hearing aids. This may be especially true for older Americans or people with limited mobility.
“We used to go to the doctor when a health need popped up, but now health professionals in many specialties can come to us on a computer or smartphone,” Dr. O’Shea said. “As technology advances, watch for even more ways you may be able to connect virtually to get and stay healthy.”
For more information, visit uhc.com.
1 UnitedHealthcare internal analysis, 2022