Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been two top-line issues: the toll of the virus, and the corresponding government-mandated lockdowns. There continue to be disagreements about the severity of the virus, as well as what degree of restrictions—if any—are justified. Aside from the political turmoil caused by these questions, another development has quietly helped Americans navigate a year of challenges and uncertainties: telemedicine.
Telemedicine has been available in the United States for several years now, though its use was fairly limited heading into 2020. The largest U.S. healthcare system, the Mayo Clinic, reported that only 300 of their network providers had performed a video telemedicine visit in 2019. From mid-March to mid-April or 2020, however, Mayo Clinic providers saw a 10,880% increase in video appointments with patients. Likewise, the number of providers offering telemedicine rose from 300 to over 6,500. Nationwide, there was a 154% increase in telehealth visits from March 2019 to March 2020.
This incredible increase relied on physicians and health care providers adapting to the needs of patients, as well as a technological framework that has improved dramatically in recent years. Naturally, this response was not made possible through government planning or intervention, but through the innovative capacity of the free market. However, it is also important to note that once in the market telemedicine worked hand-in-hand with the government-sponsored public healthcare system.
The CDC notes that “telehealth could have multiple benefits during the pandemic by expanding access to care, reducing disease exposure for staff and patients, preserving scarce supplies of personal protective equipment, and reducing patient demand on facilities.” Suffice it to say that these benefits are not only crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, but will continue to be moving forward as providers look to care for patients as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Tyto Care CEO and co-founder Dedi Gilad add that “telehealth is bridging the gap between people, physicians, and health systems, enabling everyone, especially symptomatic patients, to stay at home and communicate with physicians through virtual channels, helping to reduce the spread of the virus to mass populations and the medical staff on the frontlines.”
Suffice it to say that these benefits are not only crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, but will continue to be so in the future as providers look to care for patients as efficiently and effectively as possible. Expanded telemedicine will also allow those who may have difficulty accessing a health care facility—due to immobility, transportation issues, low income, etc.—to receive medical attention from the comfort of their homes. This also allows physicians to care for patients more efficiently while expanding health options across cities and states. The inevitable result of this innovation will be cheaper, higher quality health care that improves the health of individuals and offers relief to the family, friends, and community who care for them.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially accelerated U.S. digital health by about 10 years,” explains Bart Demaerschalk, medical director at the Mayo’s Center for Connected Care. Demaerschalk is certainly correct that the pandemic triggered this innovation, but the market’s unique ability to produce rapid advances in the production and distribution of goods and services is the real hero of the story.
It was not the CDC or WHO that quickly created and allocated the resources needed for telemedicine, but health care providers responding to market incentives as expressed by the needs and desires of patients. Though heavy-handed government policies limited the health care patients could receive, including dental, medical, and surgical procedures, providers and patients came together to overcome these hurdles as much as possible.
In fact, that has been the story of the pandemic in many ways. Businesses have faced extreme and unprecedented barriers to serving customers, with the government selecting winners and losers based on who is deemed “essential.” The result has been evident in lockdown-heavy states like California, where tens of thousands of businesses and one-third of restaurants have permanently closed due to pandemic-based restrictions. Those that have survived have relied on loyal customers, many of whom have had their incomes slashed by the same policies that have closed their favorite businesses.
Despite all of this, the market’s resilience has given people hope of a return to normalcy, with the addition of some crucial developments. The evolution of telemedicine is just one example of countless market-based innovations, but it will continue to serve as an example of how creativity stems from producers and consumers coming together to simultaneously pursue their interests and help one another do the same.
Michael Huling is a Graduate Research Assistant at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership