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How the pandemic has transformed the telehealth industry forever

June 11, 2020, 4:55 PM UTC

A wide-ranging group of health care experts on Wednesday joined a kickoff call for Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health conference in the lead up to our virtual event which will be held on July 7 and 8.

The conversation featured thoughts from prominent leaders including New York Presbyterian president and CEO Dr. Steven Corwin, Verily Life Sciences president of health platforms Dr. Vivian Lee, Komodo Health CEO and co-founder Dr. Arif Nathoo, and others on the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic across the American health care system.

One are of clear consensus among the participants? Telehealth use has skyrocketed during the outbreak—and the trend is probably here to stay.

A pandemic of this scope naturally strains hospital capacity, and people with chronic conditions such as heart problems and diabetes likely don’t want to go into a hospital setting where they put themselves at risk. That’s where telemedicine, virtual doctor visits, and other digital health technologies play a critical role, says Lee.

“It’s great that you can see doctor virtually,” she says—but even more importantly, advances such as digital diabetes care platforms “have enabled people to care for themselves in even better ways.”

Those sorts of platforms were initially slow to take off in large part because they weren’t reimbursed to the extent they should have been, according to Lee. Now, however, large health programs such as Medicare have begun to cover technologies such as continuous glucose monitors and digital diabetes coaching which can inform patients in real time about which behaviors affect their blood sugar levels.

Demand for telehealth has surged in some of the nation’s most prominent health systems. For instance, before the pandemic began, New York Presbyterian’s Corwin says that about 4% of outpatient visits were telehealth visits. “During the crisis, it’s 85%, and 95% of our outpatient psychiatry visits are now telemedicine,” he notes. “Physicians have now basically crossed the rubicon.”

That new digital paradigm extends to COVID-19 as well. For instance, says Corwin, patients who have COVID-19 but aren’t sick enough to require hospitalization are now being monitored remotely in their own homes.

Long-term changes wrought by the pandemic will only keep the trend going. “You can’t have 30 people in a waiting room or 15 people in an elevator anymore. This has all changed dramatically and there’s no going back on that.”

But despite the opportunity, challenges remain. For instance, should rural communities which already have a shortage of hospitals turn to telemedicine, the broadband infrastructure to support virtual visits must be built.

Ultimately, however, Corwin and multiple other participants believe “the horse is out of the barn” on digital health.