Telemedicine has been around for several years—and has been met with varying levels of acceptance.
While many have heralded the convenience, some states and health plans have been slow to get behind this evolving healthcare tool. With the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing concerns about healthcare capacity and exposure risks to our healthcare professionals, telemedicine may finally be coming into its own.
On March 17, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced, effective immediately, that it will exercise its enforcement discretion and will waive potential penalties for HIPAA violations against healthcare providers that serve patients through everyday communications technologies during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.
This guidance applies to widely available communications apps, such as FaceTime or Skype, when used in good faith for any telehealth treatment or diagnostic purpose, regardless of whether the telehealth service is directly related to COVID-19. Additional guidance is expected from the OCR with more details.
In recognition of both the need for expanded healthcare support, the Trump Administration also announced on March 17, 2020 that they are expanding the use of Telemedicine for Medicare participants nationwide. This expansion will ease restrictions that previously limited telemedicine options to rural patients with defined locations available for telemedicine support, and other limited use scenarios.
Telemedicine—or the ability to be seen and evaluated remotely by a healthcare professional – has several key benefits not found in traditional healthcare, including:
- Sick/infected patients do not need to travel to see the doctors, and can be supported from the comfort of their own homes. This improves the speed of care, decreases wait times in hospitals and allows only the most serious of cases to receive in-person treatment. By increasing throughput and reducing drive and wait times – patients will reduce exposure to others.
- At risk populations, like retirees, can use Telemedicine through Medicare so they don’t have to leave their house and risk exposure.
- Doctors are able to triage/evaluate and even prescribe care/medicine for infected patients in higher volumes, without the risk of becoming infected themselves. Other countries that are battling COVID-19 are seeing challenges that occur when their healthcare resources (human, financial, etc.) become overtaxed. By reducing the likelihood that doctors and nurses become infected, we will maintain greater bandwidth to the front-line forces treating these illnesses.
- As the coronavirus spreads within the United States, another benefit that will become critical to supporting the increased healthcare demand will be that infected doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, etc., will be able to continue to evaluate and support patients without risking infection to the patients themselves. As our nation’s healthcare workers become increasingly stretched, the ability to utilize infected medical professionals will be beneficial to maintain support of chronic and ongoing medical needs that do not require in-patient support.
Telemedicine does have obvious limitations and can only replace a small portion of in-person support many patients require, but it nevertheless can be an integral part of a broader healthcare strategy. While often used only to support low-complexity or recurring health issued, telemedicine can nevertheless ease some of the burden placed on a stressed healthcare delivery model. This may prove especially true in the challenging scenario facing the United States.
Additionally, states have taken steps to ease restrictions on telemedicine—paving the way for expanded use of telemedicine in areas beyond Medicare. For example, Pennsylvania eased restrictions on telemedicine related to behavioral health services.
Other health plans will likely consider expanding the use of telemedicine as a means of stretching their network of available physicians during a time when healthcare capacity suddenly seems limited.
Given this announcement, now is an important time to update your employee populations. Help them understand the availability of telemedicine through your employer-sponsored medical plans. Additionally, encourage them to find out if their primary care providers are offering alternative options to in-house appointments, allowing them to seek diagnoses from the safety of their homes.
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