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Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues
Jul 30, 2020

Coronavirus Disease 2019 and the Future of Virtual Health


Since January 2020, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has infected more than 4.5 million Americans, resulting in over 150,000 deaths; reconfigured our domestic lives and the world economy; and overwhelmed the United States’ (U.S.) public health and health care delivery capabilities.1 As individuals, institutions, and municipalities struggled to quickly integrate public health best practices into economic activities and social priorities, the virus exposed fault lines in our nation’s health care system(s). The government’s initial response was disjointed, which led to critical delays, confusion, and, ultimately, hindered collaboration. As a result, medical institutions and providers were, and still are in some cases, unable to obtain adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), provide and administer sufficient and timely testing to identify and track the disease, and secure sufficient medical equipment to care for infected individuals.

As the virus continues to spread unencumbered across multiple states, particularly in the southeastern U.S., the backlog of deferred well-patient visits is mounting. During the initial wave of the disease, many hospitals and providers cancelled well-patient visits and elective procedures to reduce the risk of infection at the hospital, prevent unnecessary harm to otherwise healthy patients, and free up critical resources to support COVID-19 response operations. These activities, though prudent, hurt hospital budgets and created a significant backlog of deferred medical care. To address these problems, many medical providers turned to telemedicine and other mobile-friendly health care platforms that allow patients to virtually connect with providers to receive medical advice and treatment without overburdening care facilities, breaking social distancing measures, or risking exposure. This shift to virtual care, though anticipated for years, was accelerated in a few short weeks as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), federal and state policy makers, and insurers temporarily relaxed regulations and promoted virtual solutions that advanced care options beyond the health care facility.2 This flurry of activity prompted some commentators to announce the much anticipated arrival of the future of medicine.

Though we at the UNC Center for the Business of Health are not prepared to make such a declaration, the rapid acceleration of virtual health care raises two interesting questions that we will pursue in the remainder of this paper. First, will consumers and physicians continue to use virtual health platforms consistently once in-person services are available and health care facilities return to ‘normal’? Second, is virtual health a lasting business model capable of surviving in a health care marketplace and competing with traditional care options? By reviewing both the supply and demand of virtual health services, we hope to better understand the U.S. health care system’s receptivity to virtual health care and the necessary changes that will follow.

1Cases in the U.S. (2020). Retrieved July 20, 2020, from www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html

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