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Wednesday, 11 March 2020

How the Coronavirus Might Transform Telemedicine

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As the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, Congress is planning to release a massive $8.3 billion spending bill to address the pandemic’s global impact.

One element of that bill will remove geographic restrictions on Medicare funding of Telehealth services for older Americans. If the bill passes, providers will also be reimbursed for delivering telehealth services for patients who don’t live in rural areas.

Congress’s actions certainly make sense. Older Americans and patients who are medically compromised are at significantly higher risk of mortality. Companies of all kinds are already looking for ways to give their staff the ability to work remotely, and telehealth seems like an obvious solution.

Benefits of telemedicine

According to one study, the number of physicians who self-reported telemedicine as a skill doubled from 2015 to 2018, and it continues to increase by about 20% per year. Telemedicine patient visits also increased annually by 261% between 2015 and 2017. One of the reasons for this growing trend is the fact that telemedicine offers several advantages over in-person care, including:

  • Limiting community exposure
  • The most clear-cut advantage of telehealth is limiting community exposure by allowing patients to avoid contact with other patients and providers. In what looks like an upcoming era of quarantines, telehealth provides continuity of care without leaving home.

  • Treating and screening more patients
  • Telehealth introduces substantial efficiencies in providing services. First, patients will save time traveling to the office. It also give providers more freedom, including the ability to work from home. Providers won’t have to commute, manage office procedures, or even get dressed for work. They can just log in, work directly with their patients, write their notes, and then move on to the next appointment. Most clinicians find that their clients quickly adapt to (and appreciate) this way of interacting. It might not always be an ideal strategy, but it certainly can work well and, it is certainly better than not being able to obtain treatment at all.

  • Increasing practice revenue
  • It may seem insensitive to bring up economics, given the extraordinary level of disruption the COVID-19 virus is causing, but Congress’s action will also provide some financial relief to agencies. Services you would not have been able to bill pre-virus might now be covered. You’ll also see reduced no-shows. Telemedicine can also provide a competitive advantage along with attracting and retaining more patients with innovative care models. Some consumers might also feel better about having an option for remote treatment.

How the bill will impact telemedicine

Medicare coverage for telemedicine is currently limited to residents of rural areas who face long road trips to receive medical treatment. The new bill waives those restrictions — allowing a beneficiary to use telehealth services even if they aren’t in a rural community. The provision in the new law is called the "Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020." The provision will also allow patients to receive care from doctors in their homes, reducing the chances of coming into contact with an infected person. It could also open the door for long-term changes in Medicare's coverage of virtual health care, like Skyping with a doctor, or using special devices to transmit critical health data. “Telehealth is really instrumental in containing and treating disease, particularly in a public health emergency,” said Megan O'Reilly, a lobbyist with AARP, the nation's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Americans 50 and older. “For older Americans, this can help keep them safe." If telemedicine demonstrates its value during the coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to permanent changes that make it more widely available.

For many of us, identifying the positive aspects of an otherwise dismal situation is a crucial element of healthy coping. And we think that reducing restrictions on telehealth falls into that category. Perhaps agencies will now be able to expand the services they can offer to their clientele, resulting in better and more efficient medical treatment across the country.


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