We’ve surely all experienced this unpleasant reality of face-to-face health care: driving through South Florida traffic only to sit for what seems like forever in a doctor’s office or urgent care center, trying not to breathe as people around us hack and sneeze.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us a different way, introducing countless Americans to the possibility of accessing health care in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers, all from the privacy of their own homes. This is the ease of telehealth, whose use grew by more than 154% at the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Besides allowing people to access care without risking the spread of COVID-19 or other diseases, the rise of telehealth also provided a lifeline to residents of rural communities with limited access to specialized care and those with mobility challenges due to disability or lack of transportation.
The American Hospital Association reports that 76% of U.S. hospitals are using telehealth to connect with patients and consult with practitioners, leveraging videoconferencing, virtual check-ins, remote monitoring, and electronic consults.
A recent survey conducted by Sachs Media found that 62% of Florida residents have participated in some type of telehealth visit, including 59% in the past three years. By far, the biggest reason Floridians gave for telehealth use was convenience due to time constraints (47%). For others, there was no good alternative: A telehealth visit was the only option offered to 28%. And nearly a fourth (23%) cited fear of exposure to others’ illnesses.
The survey underscored the important access telehealth provides to some populations – 14% said they used telehealth because of difficulty of accessing health care professionals where they live, and 7% noted limited access to specialists. More than 1 in 10 said mobility limitations drove their choice (11%).
In the same way that many American consumers have willingly traded strolling through malls for shopping online, the research suggests acceptance of telehealth is likely to grow: 9 in 10 Floridians surveyed (89%) say they’re open to the idea of participating in at least one type of telehealth service, especially for prescription renewals (81%); discussion of lab test, X-ray, or MRI results (69%); and urgent care for a cold, cough, or stomach ache (55%).
Still, universal acceptance of telehealth will require some persuasive communications, especially among the 1 in 9 Floridians who currently say they’re not open to any type of telehealth services in the future. Not surprisingly, resistance is greatest among older Floridians, with 15% of those older than 45 indicating a lack of interest – almost four times higher than those under 45 (4%).
Effective, fact-based, persuasive messaging will help skeptics overcome their concerns, including fears that telehealth means reduced quality of care (31%) and speed and accuracy of detecting illnesses (28%).
From a policy standpoint, telehealth appears to be here to stay. While the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), issued by the Biden Administration, is scheduled to end on May 11, 2023, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 extended many of the telehealth flexibilities through the end of 2024 and made other provisions permanent, including those allowing Medicare patients to access behavioral/mental health services via telehealth.
The PHE also authorized providers to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth services without an in-person medical evaluation, and earlier this year the DEA proposed permanent federal rules for telehealth prescribing of controlled substances.
Florida was an early leader in telehealth, with progressive policies dating back to 2014. A wide array of services can be delivered via telehealth in the Sunshine State, and the Florida Legislature signaled a willingness to expand this method of health care delivery last year when it removed a ban on prescribing most controlled substances via telehealth in 2022.
However, telehealth’s growth potential will surely lead to more growing pains, calls for regulatory action, and an evolving public dialogue around the future of digital health and access to care.
Proponents of telehealth will have to continue to navigate shifting legislative viewpoints and regulatory policies at both the state and federal levels – while bolstering public acceptance and overcoming pockets of reluctance. That’s where a strong, tailored message, compelling data, and the right messenger could make all the difference.
The Sachs Media survey of 415 Florida voters was conducted via a random sample of the Florida Voter File, February 14-16, 2023. The margin of error is +/- 4.8% at a 95% confidence level. Results are representative of Florida voters in terms of age, race, gender, political affiliation, and region of the state. You can view the full results here.
Michelle Ubben is the President and CEO of Sachs Media.