After 2020, telehealth use accelerates from 'digital PPE' toward mainstream care

The promise of a digital revolution in healthcare has been described as “just a few years away” for the better part of a decade, but the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 has spurred that transformation’s slow trot into a full gallop.

But which products and providers will emerge as the new household names in healthcare remains to be seen—though investors are starting to place their bets, with hundreds of millions of dollars set to change hands as companies begin jockeying for their spot in a new future for the industry. 

The pandemic has placed unfathomable burdens on the healthcare system and its professionals, but it has also lifted one of the main barriers to the adoption of digital tools: The idea that the majority of day-to-day health interactions must be conducted in person.

The tête-à-tête has been considered a prerequisite for not only the delivery of care but also necessary for patients to complete the paper forms that power a risk-averse industry governed by strict data privacy regulations—and one that still relies, to an alarming degree, on fax machines to transmit records.

That analog system comes with problems ranging from personal nuisances to widespread disparities in care. Not everyone has the same access to a doctor or the time or means to physically reach them. And even before 2020, packed waiting rooms were seen as potential vectors for infectious disease.

But with the coronavirus heightening the risk of in-person conversations, the emergency use of telemedicine—sometimes described as “digital PPE”—has exploded over the past year, and many of those changes could be here to stay.

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Nearly 80% of specialists in the U.S. said they’ve begun using telemedicine technologies to reach more patients this year, according to a survey by GlobalData. Less than half of the respondents said they had been using telemedicine programs before, and 75% said they plan to keep using them after the pandemic eases.

Meanwhile, health insurance giant Anthem reported that the early months of the pandemic saw the virtual visit count climb past 600,000 among Medicare Advantage members—up more than 136 times compared with the 4,400 logged over the same period in 2019.

Much of that growth has depended on state and federal authorities unlocking new online programs for conducting care, including by physicians in rural areas and across state lines. The Department of Health and Human Services said it would not enforce certain HIPAA penalties for using non-compliant communications software to connect doctors and patients.

Plus, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services earlier this month moved to make some of its telemedicine expansions more permanent by instituting reimbursement schemes for more digital platforms.

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Investment dollars have also flowed to companies with strong digital pitches, including through sizable venture capital rounds and acquisition deals.

The home diagnostics company Everlywell netted $175 million in early December, its second venture round this year, to build out its telehealth offerings and couple its mail-in test kits with virtual care. Meanwhile, SoftBank's Vision Fund 2 backed an $80 million round for Pear Therapeutics to help the app developer establish new market paths for digital treatments and virtual research maven Evidation Health raised $45 million to further expand its clinical platforms. Bayer also re-upped its partnership with the digital provider One Drop, making $98.7 million in future commitments.

But by far the biggest testament to a pandemic-fueled move to digital health was Teladoc’s $18.5 billion offer to buy out Livongo, the digital disease management company that offers patients virtual coaches for diabetes and more. Teladoc plans to take up Livongo’s programs and deliver them to its 70 million telehealth customers, and it estimates the related revenue boost to top $500 million by 2025.

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When it comes to digital efforts battling COVID-19 itself, many companies are pursuing the idea that algorithms and wearable sensors can pick up the earliest symptoms of the disease. By using digital biomarkers to track nearly imperceptible changes in a person’s vital signs and activity data, a virtual warning system could alert a user to seek testing or isolate themselves before they may spread the virus.

In mid-January, Fitbit put out a study showing its wristband trackers could help predict the spread of the flu. After the coronavirus began its worldwide spread months later, the company enrolled more than 100,000 people to help detect COVID-19 using the same methods—and showed that its devices could spot nearly half of cases at least one day before the wearer reported any symptoms such as fever, cough or muscle aches.

The Scripps Research Translational Institute also showed that it could cast a digital net to catch COVID-19 cases, and more recently, Oura and its smart ring demonstrated it could detect fevers early.

This year most assuredly will mark a turning point in digital health, but it’s only the start. The road ahead may come with growing pains; as the pandemic hopefully begins to recede, so may the allowances made for new technologies and emergency measures. Companies may have to prove their products deserve a spot within the new normal after 2020 has provided patients and providers a glimpse of the future of care.