Earlier this year, experts agreed that telehealth was poised to become mainstream in 2020. Spurred by broad access through smartphones and supported by health plans across the U.S., telehealth finally has the financial reimbursement and regulatory guidelines to enable patients and physicians to connect online. But now, COVID-19 has come on the scene. With the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its rapid spread around the world, private companies and governments have encouraged people to quarantine themselves if they believe that they may have the virus. But how do patients know if they have it? If they suspect that they do have it, how can they access care in a way that doesn’t expose others? And if patients have health questions unrelated to coronavirus, wouldn’t they prefer to stay away from clinics and hospitals to decrease their risk of exposure?


In a recent Time article, author Jamie Ducharme notes that in a 2019 survey, only 10% of patients had actually used telemedicine, but with 92,000 people worldwide sickened by coronavirus, COVID-19 could spur people to turn to telemedicine.


An article in The Economist notes how social media and e-commerce took off in China during the 2003 SARS epidemic. If a similar effect happens this time, we may see telehealth in China explode due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In the article, the writers note several businesses that boomed after SARS, describing how a bricks-and-mortar electronics shop moved online during the SARS outbreak and is now valued at $56 billion.


So what can you do to think through how this might impact your business or the patient’s experience? First of all, use the COVID-19 news to open a conversation with customers about how your company is thinking about telehealth broadly. Have you considered the way that patients and physicians interact on these platforms? Are you creating tools and resources that will help physicians educate patients over the telehealth platform? Can you make certain support services and savings programs available through telehealth platforms?


Telehealth also opens up new distribution possibilities; companies like Roman and HIMS are growing rapidly. It’s important to think about new ways to improve diagnosis rates and help more patients move through the treatment pathway more effectively by using telemedicine combined with digital enablers.


For payers that offer telehealth, the question now is how to encourage the appropriate use of telehealth. Telehealth can play an important role in connecting patients to physicians and nurses to get answers, but it can also provide opportunities for remote monitoring of at-risk patients. Payers should consider how patients with conditions that put them at greater risk from COVID-19 can be supported by telehealth, preventing them from needing to travel to healthcare centers for routine check-ups and monitoring. Home health services and other outreach programs can work with telehealth to deliver care and keep patients away from areas where they could be exposed to the virus.


For both payers and pharma companies, it’s time to rethink the patient end-to-end experience. If you don’t have an experience map, now is the perfect time to create one. What is the current end-to-end patient experience? What are the main touch points and stakeholders at each step? How might it change when patients have more immediate answers to their health questions and symptom suspicions through telehealth? Which steps will go faster? Which will slow down? Where will the gaps be? How can you fill them? What new opportunities does this open up?


Finally, you will want to think deeply about how patients are using digital. How does your website display on mobile? Can patients quickly find the answers they need when they move from a telehealth engagement to your site? If your brand hasn’t taken a hard look at how these interactions happen on mobile, now is the time.


No matter how long COVID-19 impacts the health of people across the globe, one thing is certain: The increase in patient use of telehealth will only grow. Is the pharma industry ready for this new digital care delivery experience?