What does 2022 have in store for the telehealth sector?

Telehealth came to the fore in in 2020 and 2021 as healthcare systems struggled to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, but the coming year could see big changes to the sector after a period of breakneck growth.

A new report from Boston Consulting Group’s Digital Ventures team predicts that with the category becoming increasingly crowded there will be consolidation as the early movers try to stay ahead of upstart competition – as already seen with 2020’s $18.5 billion merger between Livongo and Teladoc.

That deal bought telemedicine and remote patient monitoring (RPM) capabilities together in a single company, according to BCG Digital Ventures’ managing director Ashkan Afkhami, who points out that despite years of experience “we have yet to see convincing evidence for judging [telemedicine’s] effectiveness compared with in-person visits.”

Regardless of the category in which they operate, digital health organisations will eventually have to create an end-to-end continuum if they are to offer their customers the service they expect.

The winners in the category will be those companies with platforms that are able to spot quickly and reliably when a patient needs to swap from remote to face-to-face care, according to the report.

That is because there is a small but growing number of cases where conditions are being missed in virtual consultations, as well as frustration from users about what they see as “transactional” interactions, according to BCG’s lead strategic designer Alice Wilson.

Delivering a personal experience to users will be one of the big trends of 2022 in telemedicine, she says.

“It will be imperative for companies to utilise technology and draw upon the insights of behavioural science to create value for providers and customers through highly personalised insights and care,” according to the report.

Reimbursement and access

At the same time, the massive adoption of telehealth services has thrown a spotlight on reimbursement policies as well as issues of ensuring equitable access between different populations.

Reimbursement policies for telehealth services and modalities remain inconsistent across geographies, according to BCG managing director and partner André Heeg, who reckons: “the final verdict on whether live video or audio-only telemedicine can be reimbursed will influence the degree to which providers embed telehealth within their services.”

It will be essential that companies ensure that their digital health offerings make sense financially and have business models – including a billing system – behind them that will work, according to the report.

“Otherwise, given costs, the scalability of such solutions will be impaired or, at the least, very challenging,” it adds.

Unequal access to services – with younger patients with higher incomes and technological acumen driving uptake – is another problem that will need to be tackled urgently as the world moves towards a post-pandemic scenario, says Heeg.

According to Stuart John, director of product management for healthcare at BCG Digital Ventures, telemedicine is just the first wave of disruption in how people relate to health systems, as they adjust to changes introduced by COVID-19 such as regular testing, temperature scanning and digital vaccination records.

“With increasingly accurate medical sensors in smart watches and wearables tied to personal health records and personalised insights, there will be an unprecedented and growing real-time awareness of individuals’ physiological and mental status, with the ability to rapidly self-test, diagnose, and seek virtual treatment or prescriptions without engaging with the family doctor or local health services.”

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