The COVID-19 pandemic has demolished everyday life, killing hundreds of thousands of people and harming millions. Finding a bright side to this public health disaster is not possible. But admitting to some positive developments is acceptable. For example, Telehealth has become a commonplace way to safely provide necessary medical attention to vulnerable and remote populations during this time of social distancing and quarantines. The growth of video conferencing in health care accelerated because of the coronavirus, allowing more people to benefit from this form of medical care. In the future, telehealth services promise to remain a meaningful part of patient treatment.
Telehealth in the time of COVID-19
Until recently, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and many private insurance companies severely restricted payouts for telehealth services. However, due to the crisis, many of the impediments to telehealth expansion were removed.
The CMS offered waivers to physicians that allowed them to more efficiently bill for telehealth services. It allowed them to see new and established patients remotely from their offices and charge for an office visit. They could also consult with patients who were at another facility via video conferencing. The restrictions became relaxed to allow physicians only licensed in another state to provide telehealth services legally.
Restrictions to the service still apply, but thousands of patients can now receive medical advice while safely isolating at home. In June, the AMA reported that 46% of patients were using telehealth after a canceled in-person appointment — up from 11% in 2019. For some physicians, this means 100 times the telehealth patients they had before the COVID pandemic.
How telehealth is used
While not all services can be offered remotely, the effective uses of telehealth have been widely demonstrated in recent months. The CDC provides a comprehensive list of appropriate telehealth services, but the primary benefits of this healthcare type include the following:
- Screening possible COVID-19 patients: Doctors can assess their need for testing, treatment or quarantine from a distance, preventing patients from potentially passing along the virus.
- Low-risk urgent care assessment: Physicians can assess and offer treatment advice for non-COVID conditions such as the flu, ear infections, urinary tract infections, etc. With the help of connected devices, they can learn a patient’s heart rate and blood pressure. Doctors may also prescribe medications based on their findings.
- Monitoring chronic conditions: Patients with diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, etc., can be monitored without exposure to COVID-19 or other contagious diseases. These patients sometimes are not well enough to travel to their doctor.
- Follow-up care: Patients recovering from a hospital stay or a bout with COVID-19 need safe follow-up care. Teleconferencing can provide it. If the patient needs more treatment, they can visit the physician in person.
- Remote patient care: Patients in rural areas, particularly those with chronic and acute health conditions, may skip doctors’ visits due to transportation difficulties. Teleconferencing keeps them in touch with their doctors and helps them to maintain their health.
- Internal consulting: Physicians can more easily consult with others in their practice or facility by using teleconferencing. The method saves time, but more importantly, it prevents the patient from unnecessary exposure to more healthcare workers and other patients. It’s also a safe and convenient way for doctors to consult with each other without the patient being present.
The importance of teletherapy
With the current economic and health crisis, now is not the time to abandon mental health treatment. Teletherapy is an effective way for patients to deal with depression, anxiety, and other existing issues. Telehealth was already in use by the mental health profession, but more patients are now embracing it. And as with different specialties, CMS and private insurance have relaxed their rules about reimbursement.
Other therapy types are also using teleconferencing to maintain patient health during the pandemic. These include physical therapy and occupational therapy, sometimes in conjunction with in-person visits. Through teletherapy, contact with other patients is limited while their medical needs are still met.
The future of telehealth
The AMA is bullish on the future of telehealth post-pandemic. Since the beginning of this crisis, somewhere between 60 and 90% of physicians use telehealth services, with around 50% of that number doing so for the first time. This experience has convinced many that they need to embrace the practice and improve it for future use. Patients also have seen the benefits of telehealth.
Long-term telehealth use is particularly relevant for nursing home patients, who need 24/7 care and best treated in place. Rural patients and those with limited mobility are also prime candidates for continued telehealth use.
This industry’s growth depends on making the CMS waivers permanent and ensuring that physicians receive proper reimbursement for these services, just as they should for all medical visits. An overhaul of federal and state government regulations concerning telehealth will need consideration.
Telehealth needs selling to patients and the physician population that has yet to use it. One effective way to change attitudes toward this service and help with lead generation for physicians is through content marketing.
Blogs, social media and webinars from healthcare thought leaders can help battle the concerns remaining about remote medical consultations. After all, telehealth is a radical concept to some who might question its effectiveness.
The pandemic provides the medical community with the statistics to prove that it is a viable way to offer patient care. Plus, telehealth benefits physicians who can see more patients and maintain relationships in the most challenging circumstances. By broadcasting the benefits of telehealth and proving its effectiveness, this technology could change the face of modern health care for the better.