As the world continues its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, a sea change is underway in care delivery. The days of visiting a hospital for general ailments and medications are coming to an end. Hospitals providing COVID-19 treatment or containment facilities are actively advising patients to seek telehealth. And this change is not limited to hospitals. With self-practicing healthcare providers rethinking their care delivery methods as well, telemedicine is emerging as the hero of the hour.
Telemedicine: The game-changer in a COVID-19 world
Propped by the right technology and payment framework, telemedicine can reduce administrative costs, optimize patient throughput, and broaden access to care. In times when there is a shortage of care providers across the healthcare continuum, telemedicine’s impact on population health makes a real difference. Some of the benefits include:
- Disease control: To avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus disease at healthcare facilities, high-risk patients with benign illnesses can seek medical attention from the safety of their homes.
- Inclusive care: Apart from the evident comfort, telemedicine also ensures that patients seeking help do not bear the brunt of the pandemic and still receive optimum care.
- Expedited second opinion: For patients who seek additional diagnosis for the ailment, telemedicine quickens the process. It also eliminates the need to schedule and wait for appointments from preferred physicians who may not be available for in-person consultation due to the pandemic.
- Improved patient satisfaction: Better access to healthcare services in times of lockdowns increases patient satisfaction and improves population health.
- Efficient clinical case management: In addition, there is a considerable reduction of the burden on physicians and hospital administrative staff who can continue to serve the most demanding patients.
While telemedicine appears to be a rewarding choice, being an evolving technology, it requires equal support from governing bodies, providers, as well as patients. There is a continuing need for clearer and streamlined policies, and standards around telehealth practices to enable easier implementation for doctors. Let’s examine how the government, healthcare institutions, and patients can contribute to make telehealth work.
A key need for regulators is to buy-in telemedicine-related products and policies and accordingly provision arrangements for the same. In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued regulations to implement telehealth requirements in the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) which expanded patients’ access to telehealth services. The CARES Act will help ensure that vulnerable patient populations can access care in their homes while quarantined, giving doctors the ability to deliver their services safely. CMS is now paying for 80 additional Medicare services via telehealth, including emergency department visits, initial nursing facility, and discharge visits. Meanwhile, Medicaid has expanded its coverage for payable and reimbursement healthcare for services like pediatric care.
Clinicians that are allowed to provide telehealth services can provide home visit services for evaluated Medicare beneficiaries, who have audio phones. Clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists can receive payment for Medicare telehealth services. Meanwhile, licensed practitioners, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants can order Medicaid home health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We know from experience that doctors are more likely to take the steps necessary to learn and implement new approaches to medicine when patients request them. In light of these facts, patients’ support for telehealth could benefit them and others and ultimately contribute to more widespread adoption.
The way forward
Given its nascent stage, the new CARES Act, its provisions, and accordingly, the widespread adoption of telehealth will take some time. Fortunately, telehealth recently has become a rapidly growing care channel in the US and is being considered globally. According to a report by Healthcare Growth Partners (HGP), Novant Health witnessed an increase of video visits from 200 to 12,000 per week in the period of March-April 2020. Similarly, NYU Langone’s virtual care physician force went from 20 in number to more than 1,300 in the same time span. It is evident from these numbers that telemedicine has caught the interest of patients and providers alike, and in the times to come, we will likely see more patients leaning toward it. Regulatory bodies are working on relevant policies, and physicians who recognize the benefits of telehealth have stepped up their game as well. Now the only question is, will more patients across the globe follow suit.