Telemedicine in America is undergoing not just an evolution, but a revolution, one that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The massive shift to telemedicine is not simply anecdotal — health insurance data proves that the industry is seeing a ground-breaking transformation. Telemedicine-related claims increased 8,336% in April 2020, compared to a year prior, and accounted for 13% of all medical claims in April 2020, compared to just 0.15% in April 2019, according to FAIR Health’s Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker.
At the center of the telemedicine revolution are health plans and agents, now serving a clientele whose expectations are evolving to a new normal and are not likely to return to pre-pandemic standards of care access and reimbursement. Importantly, telemedicine use has greatly expanded beyond the services that have commonly been administered via remote care in the past, such as behavioral health benefits. According to FAIR Health, mental health conditions remained the most frequent telemedicine claims in March and April 2020, compared to the year prior. However, the rest of the conditions that round out the top five telemedicine claims greatly evolved. For example, acute respiratory issues comprised 16.84% of telemedicine claims in April 2019 but dropped to just 3.08% in April 2020. Instead, telemedicine claims for joint and soft tissue diseases and hypertension became more prevalent, at 5.83% and 3.71%, respectively.
It comes as no surprise, then, that “ocular telemedicine” — or telemedicine for eye care and vision health — has entered the insurance and benefits conversation. In fact, health plan executives say that members’ ability to use technology to meet with eye care professionals would have the highest impact on their receptivity to purchasing vision insurance, according to Versant Health’s inaugural Vision Wellness Study.
Health insurance agents and brokers who understand the opportunities that ocular telemedicine affords, as well as how changes are being made for the better, are in position to demonstrate the value of vision benefits in a world where their clients are shifting their understanding of insurance and re-evaluating even the smallest of costs.
Modern ocular telemedicine is more than live video chats.
There is a general assumption that ocular telemedicine accessed through vision benefits is limited to traditional, synchronous video conversations with eye care professionals. However, in reality, ocular telemedicine comprises a wide range of care capabilities and advanced technologies — from participating in vision screenings performed via mobile devices, to retinal imaging for high-risk patients at point-of-service locations, to emerging artificial intelligence applications for monitoring eye health.
Most impactfully, vision care plans are have moved away from approving only synchronous methods of communication and moved toward approving asynchronous communication and patient home monitoring in telemedicine services. Asynchronous ocular telemedicine refers to communication between patients and eye care professionals that does not happen in real time, typically denoting virtually transmission of test results for a later assessment. Home monitoring refers to eye care professionals’ continued assessment of patients’ health status, typically meaning at-home updates and images digitally provided by patients at regular intervals.