Although much of the discourse on telehealth rightly focuses on its benefits, the potential drawbacks and limitations are often glossed over, particularly with regard to provider burden.

Long before COVID-19, telehealth was seen as an emerging piece of the healthcare puzzle. Today, nearly two years into the pandemic, there is no doubt that telehealth has gone mainstream, solidifying the hybrid care category. Once limited by low adoption rates resulting from limited awareness and a lack of favorable reimbursements, telehealth has increased care access and convenience in an environment that has demanded virtual care. However, while much of the telehealth discourse rightly focuses on its benefits, the potential drawbacks and limitations are often glossed over, particularly with regard to provider burden.

The reality is that telehealth is not a regular office visit done virtually. Rather, it is an entirely different experience for the provider and the patient. Providers used to treating patients in person have become overwhelmed by being forced to offer virtual care, with its potential technology-related issues, informal nature, and inability to physically interact with patients. Virtual care can also exacerbate, rather than alleviate, burnout. In 2021 Medical economics® Physician Burnout and Wellness Survey, 80% of physicians surveyed said they were burnt out, with 31% citing too much paperwork and bureaucracy and 24% citing too many hours worked and poor work-life balance as the cause. Compounded by the ongoing pandemic and the addition of telehealth appointments, the result is an exhausted and exhausted healthcare workforce. For those outside of healthcare, think of the immediacy of Zoom meetings with the added stress of a patient’s health and concerns always just a click away.

The economics of telehealth can also create burdens. Shifting patients from in-person to virtual visits results in lower revenue for providers as they are compensated for the cost of physical infrastructure and human resources. For example, virtual care can be delivered from a physician’s home, typically requires shorter visit times, requires no physical exams, and has no potential for income from ancillary or pharmacy services. Adding a virtual care option also dramatically increases costs for healthcare organizations through technology investment and maintenance, while ensuring platform interoperability. There are additional human capital costs, such as staff required to register, counsel and support in-person and virtual patients. In an ecosystem where the economics of practice are already complicated due to the different reimbursement models and incentives staff must navigate, virtual care adds another layer of complexity that further inhibits organizations’ ability to maximize outcomes and patient profits.

As we enter this new phase of the pandemic, telehealth will undoubtedly continue to be an essential part of the care experience. As our health care systems are once again pushed to their limits, offerings such as telehealth that correctly identify visits that do not require in-person attention will help both save lives and control health care system costs. However, as with the introduction of the electronic medical record, telehealth offers significant benefits, but not without challenges for providers. The long-term success of telehealth will depend on the ability of the whole ecosystem to make the necessary adjustments to its practices and to create the infrastructure necessary to adapt to the new reality.

Shane Peng, MD, is the Director of Clinical Services and Innovations at IKS Health.