The first time I considered telehealth as a viable option for care delivery was in February 2020. I had just heard that one of my patients had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and admitted to Evergreen Health, a hospital our practice covered just outside of Seattle. The news was jarring. Suddenly, it became crystal clear that patient access to care and the economic survival of our business would require another approach. Seemingly overnight, we built a telehealth program and began seeing patients virtually from the comfort and safety of home.
We certainly weren’t alone. From January to March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 154% increase in telehealth visits.1 Even as the postpandemic era settles in, the use of telehealth today is 38 times greater than the pre-COVID baseline, creating a market valued at $250 billion per year.2 What value might gastroenterologists gain from the use of telehealth going forward?
As GI demand outpaces supply, it’s time to consider alternative channels of care
The prevalence of gastrointestinal illness, the size of the market, and the growing difficulty in gaining access to care makes it natural to consider whether virtual care may benefit patients and GI practices alike. Approximately 70 million Americans, or 1 in 5, live with chronic GI symptoms.4 On an annual basis, more than 50 million primary care visits and 15 million ER visits in the United States have a primary diagnostic code for GI disease.5 Annual expenditures to address GI conditions, valued at $136 billion, outpace those of other high-cost conditions such as heart disease or mental health.6 And with the recent addition of 21 million patients between 45 and 49 years of age who now require colon cancer screening, plus the expected postpandemic increase in GI illness, those numbers are likely to grow.7
Compounding matters is a shortage of clinicians. Between early physician retirements and a limited number of GI fellowships, gastroenterology was recently identified by a Merritt Hawkins survey as the “most in-demand” specialty.8 Patients are already waiting months, and even up to a year in some parts of the country, to see a gastroenterologist. GI physicians, likewise, are running ragged trying to keep up and are burning out in the process.
The case for virtual GI care
Until the pandemic, many of us would not have seriously considered a significant role for virtual care in GI. When necessity demanded it, however, we used this channel effectively with both patients and providers reporting high rates of satisfaction with telehealth for GI clinic visits.9