Not surprisingly, the use of telehealth rose dramatically at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new report out of McKinsey & Company, telehealth usage for doctor’s office visits and outpatient care was 78 times higher in April 2020 than it was in February 2020.

Slightly more surprising is what has happened in the 14 or so months that followed. While the use of telehealth declined a bit in June 2020, it has plateaued at a rate that’s 38 times higher now than it was pre-pandemic.

“In terms of usage, it’s quite substantial and sustained,” said Oleg Bestsennyy, a McKinsey partner and an author of the report. “Both providers and consumers are much more excited about telehealth going forward than before the pandemic. When you take a step back, it’s to say that in these 18 months we’ve witnessed a significant acceleration of telehealth and I’m personally super-excited to see what’s yet to come.”

Bestsennyy says the sustained growth is due to three main factors: A rise in the number of consumers willing to use telehealth; increased acceptance by healthcare providers; and regulatory changes that have improved access.

It’s also likely that the benefits of telehealth are more widely understood than they were prior to the pandemic, Bestsennyy added.

“First and foremost, it’s about convenience and access,” he explained. “Not having to make a trip, not having to sit in the waiting line and being able to have a visit outside of the working hours of your doctor’s practice — that’s definitely the convenience of telehealth.”

Bestsennyy said that when examining telehealth through a broader lens — the wider umbrella of “virtual care,” which goes beyond mere video technology — it’s easier to understand the aspects that lend themselves to better preventive care. Remote patient monitoring devices and sensors, coupled with artificial intelligence and member-facing applications, may hold promise in the treatment of the elderly, individuals with chronic conditions like diabetes, and patients undergoing recovery from orthopedic surgery.

“The promise of virtual care or digital health is to create a completely different approach to how patients are cared about, where they’re under a care looking glass, so to speak, 24/7,” Bestsennyy said. “This allows interventions to happen much more rapidly, and down the line lead to avoidance of preventable medical exacerbations… It would hopefully lead to better outcomes and better quality of care.”

Bestsennyy characterized telehealth’s potential to transform behavioral health as “immense,” given increasing demand.

“The levels of anxiety among the U.S. population have really grown over the past year,” he explained. “It’s breaking down the geographic boundaries of being able to provide access and this is especially pronounced in rural settings. There are many counties in the U.S. without a psychotherapist residing there, and so these novel approaches allow much better access to these services.”

Bestsennyy cautioned, however, that much uncertainty remains. While the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded reimbursable telehealth codes for the 2021 physician fee schedule, it’s unclear whether this will continue when the public health emergency expires.

Bestsennyy nonetheless expects a concept known as “near virtual” to emerge. He describes it as an in-person/virtual hybrid, where part of the care occurs in person and part takes place from afar.

“Can you imagine a virtual visit with a doctor with self-diagnostic tools applied at home, but with a doctor observing via video conference? And then for the lab test, you just have to take a trip down the road to a local clinic or a retail location and have blood drawn, then your doctor sees the lab results?” Bestsennyy asked. “All of that makes it much more convenient for you to have preventive care and physicals.”