With the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, many people were unable to leave their homes or feared going to see a doctor in person due to the potential risk of exposure. One solution that allowed patients and healthcare providers to connect was telehealth (generally defined in broad terms to encompass technology and health-related services provided via telecommunications and digital communication). Wider adoption of this practice was coupled with changes in reimbursement models as part of the 2020 U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included emergency polices that improved provider payments for telehealth and allowed for providers to deliver care across state lines.

As a result, telehealth grew significantly last year. In the analysis, “Medicare Beneficiary Use of Telehealth Visits: Early Data From the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that in April 2020 nearly half (43.5 percent) of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth compared with less than 0.1 percent in February 2020.

While this practice was newly adopted by many because of COVID-19, doctors and patients are now learning to apply it to their daily health practices and sickness prevention. Providers are able to leverage technology to deliver care in a way that can reach more patients, while patients can use telemedicine visits (defined as patient care via telecommunication technology), to reach more providers without traveling long distances. This also means patients have greater flexibility to choose the best physician for their individual needs.

Digital portals for personal health records, such as MyChart by Epic or FollowMyHealth by Allscripts, further enable patients to take charge of their health by requesting and viewing records and allowing both patients and physicians to look at documents and results together to discuss openly next steps in treatments.

With the convergence of high-capacity computing, 5G wireless technology, and a ton of data, the industry is better positioned today to utilize technology beyond the walls of the hospital. However, the added access doesn’t mean a decrease in the need for a physical presence. There are still services like diagnostics and lab functions that must be done in person (for now!).

Furthermore, some lower socioeconomic groups that could benefit the most from telehealth live in technology deserts or don’t have the digital literacy to navigate a fully digital healthcare solution. According to the PEW Research Center, rural Americans continue to have fewer broadband options. This creates an opportunity to explore a “third space,” which isn’t in the home and doesn’t completely rely on a personal device but still allows for remote care through the aid of telehealth. Careful research should be done in the community to determine where this third space may occur. Several criteria can be employed to help establish strategic locations for these sites, including: walkability, broadband connectivity, extended hours, whether it currently meets other needs in the community, and if it is safe and trusted. By finding the right blend between in-person and telemedicine, people can receive the best healthcare available to them and feel in control of their health.

Prior to 2020, many people never considered a video conference with their doctor. Now they can speak with physicians near and far to find the best solutions to support their health. As designers, helping create places to connect healthcare professionals in this emerging digitized healthcare world is one of the next challenges, along with improving the environments and experiences for in-person care that are enhanced by an online counterpart.

Jim Henry, AIA, NCARB, is senior vice president, director of health at CallisonRTKL. He can be reached at Jim.Henry@crtkl.comIn this series, he will explore how accelerated change is rapidly shaping our healthcare systems, built environments, and ways of thought when it comes to safe and healthy design. Future blogs will discuss topics including the shift in redefining health, healthcare’s design impact on other market sectors, increased access to healthcare through the adoption of technology, and designs that better communities and improve population health.

Read the first installment, “Accelerating Change: Open To New Ideas,”  here.