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Significant challenges often spur American medicine and science to come together and rapidly advance a stagnant technology or practice to benefit our communities.

COVID-19 immediately altered healthcare delivery, forcing massive changes to providers, payers, and patients.

Illnesses, injuries, and check-ups were not going to come to a halt during the spread of COVID-19. People would still need to have access to high-quality healthcare.

Fortunately, the Independent Doctors of Idaho and Blue Cross of Idaho were already working together on innovative healthcare changes.

Together, we took telehealth - an under-utilized resource before the COVID-19 outbreak - off the backburner and immediately expanded it before the stay-at-home order was in place. Our goal was to help Idahoans access critical care during a time of uncertainty.

Despite previous efforts from payers and providers to broaden telehealth access, many patients were reluctant to use it. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Center for Lifetime Health had a goal of at least three telehealth visits per month. The office went far beyond that goal, scheduling more than 180 telehealth visits during the first month of the stay-at-home order.

Blue Cross of Idaho has processed more than 90,500 telehealth claims since expanding telehealth access on March 19, 2020. During the week of January 27-February 2, 2020, Blue Cross of Idaho processed 108 telehealth claims. That number increased to 10,718 telehealth claims between April 6-April 19, 2020 - 118 times more than the weekly average for the first three months of the year.

Those figures include an increase behavioral health visits conducted over a smart phone, tablet, or computer.

Payers and providers are starting to review telehealth data, and already noticing positive trends

Idahoans loved the convenience of telehealth and appreciated the quick access to a provider. Rural patients could access care from a local provider or a specialist hundreds of miles away. Telehealth expansion also allowed rural providers to triage complex cases to medical specialists while still providing acute care to others in the community.

Further, telehealth kept a vital lifeline between providers and their most vulnerable patients.

Blue Cross of Idaho reimbursed providers at in-network, in-office rates for telehealth visits. The company committed to do so through December 2020.

Fortunately, providers or payers are not walking back on the swift advancements in telehealth, which is an overdue change to the healthcare industry.

Telehealth does have its limitations and is not a replacement for an in-office visit. Yearly physicals, care for chronic diseases, or even following up on a decades-old sports injury are critical medical issues that are best seen and discussed in person.

Idaho is beginning to emerge from lockdown, and now is the right time to schedule an appointment with your family provider. Already, our data indicate that many Idahoans skipped primary care for significant issues during the quarantine - anything from sinus infections, chronic conditions, and broken bones.

A yearly physical is an opportunity to talk about physical or mental health issues and allows your provider to pick up on the disease process.

Presumably, medical events such as pre-diabetes or a prostate cancer screening can become more significant issues without medical care.

Not only did Idahoans skip routine care, but they avoided the hospital for medical emergencies. A national study from Stanford1 found a 39% drop in neuroimaging and evaluation for signs of stroke between March 26, 2020 through April 8, 2020.

We will continue to work together to ensure Idahoans receive high quality, affordable care as we emerge from the pandemic.

Dr. John Eck is the lead physician at the Center for Lifetime Health. Drew Hobby is the senior vice president of healthcare economics for Blue Cross of Idaho.

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