The COVID Era is Reshaping Healthcare Consumer Behaviors…Is the U.S. Healthcare System Ready To Adapt?

Family using telehealth session via tablet

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how to adapt and find new ways to live amidst a global pandemic. Just as the pandemic is reshaping the economy and our way of life, it’s changing how consumers are utilizing and modifying the healthcare system to better meet their needs. From virtual medicine to shifting consumer sentiments surrounding heath and safety protocols the country’s healthcare system as a whole has had to adapt to the unknowns brought about by this pandemic. What we’re seeing now, and will continue to witness as the virus rages on, is a rapid shift in the delivery of care based on ever-changing guidelines and variables facing the health of the nation, and how healthcare consumers are responding in kind.

Telemedicine – Here to Stay?

Telemedicine has exploded since the virus shuttered doctor’s offices around the country in mid-March. In a matter of weeks, consumers went from the waiting room to the living room to meet with their doctors. And while offices are opening as quarantine orders loosen around the country, studies are showing that this newfound desire for telemedicine won’t be going away even after the pandemic subsides. A recent consumer survey from PwC’s Health Research Institute tested the waters of consumer willingness to go back to pre-COVID healthcare and showed that more people are apt to adopt telemedicine than ever before. Concern over the contagiousness of the virus and its impact on personal health has consumers shifting their health behaviors, with 78% of the survey respondents noting that they would skip at least one visit to the doctor, whether for a well-visit, maintenance for a chronic condition, or lab testing.

And while consumers still recognize the value of an in-office visit with their providers for physical exams and conditions that warrant an evaluation, telehealth’s satisfaction and utilization rates continue to increase as consumers also desire social distance for routine healthcare matters. The HRI study shows that telehealth utilization has almost doubled since 2019. Even individuals who balked at the adoption of telemedicine are adapting to the virtual method of healthcare delivery.

It seems telemedicine is here to stay, and for good reason.

Consumers Taking Healthcare Decisions Into Their Own Hands, Often Out of Fear

Although stay-at-home orders have been lifted in many states and businesses are reopening, people remain anxious about venturing out to a doctor’s office or pharmacy for their regular prescriptions. Similarly, some individuals are delaying preventive care or elective procedures out of fear of virus exposure.

A May 2020 survey released by the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) shows that 41% of people surveyed delayed healthcare services and only 31% of people feel comfortable visiting their doctor’s office, demonstrating that healthcare consumers continue to drastically change their use and views of traditional healthcare. Delaying care, especially for those with chronic medical conditions, can certainly result in negative long-term implications. As the country reopens, providers and healthcare systems must regain consumer trust when it comes to reinforced safety protocols.

Home Health Care – Outlook Looks Favorable

With news about COVID-19 outbreaks hitting nursing homes and senior living facilities extremely hard, opportunities for home health care are expanding as fear for the safety of senior residents increases. Could the pandemic result in more adult children considering aging in place and home health care as a better alternative to a skilled nursing facility for elderly parents? Home health care is emerging as a viable alternative for many families. And what about payers — will home health care services become less of a private pay model? Will Medicaid and Medicare Advantage take on more of the financial burden for home health services? According to Home Health Care News, the outlook for expanded coverage for these services and more federal payment opportunities seems favorable [Home Health Care News].

Americans Are Losing Sleep

Interestingly, but not surprising, the HRI survey shows that more Americans are reporting problems with social determinants of health during the COVID pandemic. Loss of sleep, heightened feelings of isolation and anxiety, lack of access to childcare, under or unemployment, loss of financial stability and/or affordable housing are all factors playing into an individual’s ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle changes and disruption of daily routines (working from home or unemployment, for example) have greatly contributed to a shift in motivation and ability to prioritize health. These changes, coupled with the fact that some individuals are putting off healthcare during the pandemic, could pose a greater threat to the general health of Americans in the foreseeable future.

To help consumers with some of these challenges, some employers are stepping up their benefit offerings to include telework to counterbalance lack of childcare and distance learning, more paid sick leave, and increased mental health benefits. As the pandemic continues, more supports will need to be initiated in the public and private sectors. Consumer behavior will dictate the “new normal,” and consumers won’t refrain from challenging the status quo of healthcare.

Our Take: Healthcare consumers are smart and engaged in their own care, now more than ever. In return, the U.S. healthcare system must answer the calls for higher levels of safety and meet the demand for new ways to deliver care, whether in an office or a virtual environment. Patients are not likely to revert to pre-COVID behaviors and providers must adapt to the new needs of patients through enhanced safety protocols, technology, relationship-building, and transparency to move ahead.

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