– It’s been said, rightly and tragically so, that it took a pandemic to prove the value of telehealth to the American healthcare system.
As health systems and hospitals adjust their workflows to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, they’re learning some valuable lessons on how to best use connected health technology. With in-person care reduced to emergencies and an emphasis on keeping patients and providers separated, they’re using telemedicine platforms and mHealth devices – including the telephone – to deliver care.
And they’re planning beyond the COVID-19 crisis, with telehealth front and center.
Expanding – Temporarily – the Telehealth Playing Field
At the onset of the pandemic, state and federal regulators moved quickly to reduce the barriers to telehealth adoption, understanding that these new tools could speed access to care while protecting healthcare workers.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) launched several emergency initiatives that expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage, including increasing the types of providers able to use telehealth, allowing providers more freedom to use different modalities – such as remote patient monitoring and phone-based services – and expanding the number of sites qualifying for coverage to include homes, federally qualified health centers, and rural clinics.
State regulators added their own emergency directives, expanding Medicaid coverage, enabling more care providers to use telehealth, requiring private payers to cover telehealth services and, in some cases, tweaking the rules to allow out-of-state providers to use telehealth to treat residents and providers in the state to treat residents of other states.
Other federal agencies took action as well. With Congress passing and President Trump signing into law a series of coronavirus relief bills, Washington opened the purse strings for a number of telehealth projects. The Health and Human Services Department dished out a number of grants and awards, while the Federal Communications Commission launched its own $100 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, aiming to support broadband expansion projects that pushed new telehealth services into rural areas where connectivity isn’t great.
Those measures opened the floodgates for telehealth, allowing for new programs and the expansion of existing networks. In April, a survey of some 1,300 physicians by the online physician network Sermo found that 90 percent were using at least some form of telehealth and 60 percent were planning to continue that practice after the emergency. In May, a survey of hospitals and health system executives by Xtelligent Healthcare Media put that number at 63 percent, well above the 20 percent adoption rates seen prior to the pandemic.
“Telehealth has been the missing element to how we deliver healthcare,” says Mei Kwong, executive director for the Center for Connected Health Policy, one of a handful of organizations that have been keeping track of telehealth use during the pandemic. “But now people are familiar with it. They now have the experience and will want to see it used more often.”