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How Will the Telemedicine Trend Affect EDs?

February 4, 2023

EDs can stay flexible (and viable) by acting on what their data tells them and adapting hybrid virtual care models.

In 2020, telemedicine utilization surged as patients sought access to providers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to McKinsey data, usage in the United States peaked in April 2020, with a $250 billion shift to virtual care by mid-2021. With favorable regulatory changes that have sustained growth, it looks like the technology is here to stay.

What is the impact on emergency departments?

Emergency departments have long faced the problem of overcrowding due to a large number of subacute patients. As emergency encounter volumes have rebounded after the volatility of the pandemic, wait times and crowding have become worse than ever.

If trends continue, there are some projections we can make about how ED trends will unfold and how they may be impacted by telemedicine.

1.  High-acuity visits will continue to increase. Data from the ED Benchmarking Alliance has shown consistent increases in acuity, driven in large part by demographics as the U.S. population continues to age. Lower-acuity encounters continue to move to other care settings, includingtelemedicine, urgent care, and primary care, but these settings are inadequate for elderly patients with complex medical histories and multiple medical problems. As a result, overall acuity of ED patients has risen, requiring a new look at staffing and skill levels, equipment usage, reimbursement, and other operational factors. Hybrid care models, whereby virtual personnel collaborate with onsite personnel, show significant promise improving efficiencies and productivity in these intense environments.

2. There will be a reduced reliance on the emergency room for non-urgent care. Along with the increased use of virtual telemedicine is a decrease in the use of the emergency department for non-urgent care. One health system concluded that nearly 15% of its virtual patients would have visited the emergency room had they not had access to virtual urgent care. This figure mirrors a claims-based analysis conducted by McKinsey & Company which suggests that 20% of ED visits could be avoided through virtual care options.

3. The overall percentage of mental health or substance abuse patients will increase. Among the many social and economic impacts of COVID-19, mental health has been a big one. Isolation and stress have been widely reported, as well as increased rates of alcohol and substance abuse. Current figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 40% increase in adult mental health struggles and substance use. Yet visits for these issues are the least affected by telemedicine. Behavioral telemedicine has its place, but it generally is used for ongoing, routine therapy and not in the acute phases of illness.

Moving Forward With Technology

Historically, once a new technology emerges and becomes widely adopted, it doesn’t regress. Social media, online shopping, and online banking, for instance, were groundbreaking at first but have all become widely accepted. Telemedicine shows promise as a means for reducing unnecessary emergency visits, and has also demonstrated benefits when used in hybrid virtual care models to speed patient flow in busy emergency departments.

EmOpti is ready to help determine how telehealth care models can positively affect your emergency department. Overall trends are one thing, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in every region, each hospital has its own hurdles to overcome. Our experience and insights can help providers determine the highest-impact opportunities and then monitor the impact as you implement new processes. Contact our experts to learn more or to request a demo.


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