When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses, schools and doctors' offices closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus responsible for the loss of life worldwide. To support the health and well-being of people across the country, health insurers reacted quickly, paying at parity or near-parity for both audio/video and audio-only health care visits.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the use of virtual health services forward to meet the needs of patients sheltering at home. Patients and providers find these visits essential to the continuation of health care services during the public health emergency. In industry parlance, these virtual visits are called “telemedicine” or “telehealth.”

Telehealth is on the rise in Vermont communities. In a recent statewide survey conducted by OneCare Vermont, health care providers overwhelmingly responded that they are providing telehealth services to patients during the public health emergency.

Telehealth is not a new invention. In fact, the technology has been available for decades. But before the pandemic caused a compulsory shift in the way we deliver health care, the use of telehealth was limited.

We have a unique opportunity to leverage telehealth to increase health access after the pandemic — a key component of health equity and health care reform. Imagine a patient whose transportation is unreliable or who is unable to find a primary care provider accepting new patients near their home. We live in a rural state with a demographically older patient population. Winter storms (and even spring floods) can make travel difficult or impossible.

If health care is a priority and caring for patients a necessity, telehealth can help bridge the gap. But there is still more we can do. Providers across Vermont emphasized the need for improved broadband and cellular service to enable essential connectivity with their patients and they revealed a clear need for increased data literacy.

Norman Ward, MD

Burlington

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