When we last wrote about telemedicine in 2018, conducting medical office visits by telephone or video was still considered cutting-edge for medical practices. At the time, the Texas Medical Board had reversed a mandate that medical practitioners had to see patients in person prior to digital interactions. The agreement made Texas the first state in the nation to abolish the in-person requirement, with many other states slowly accepting this method of healthcare delivery. In fact, according to a J.D. Power survey, only one in 10 patients used telemedicine services before 2020. Not any longer—the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed telemedicine front and center throughout the nation.
The terms telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably. It’s worth noting the slight distinction. Telehealth is a broader term used to address a wide range of services and technology to improve healthcare delivery, such as the electronic delivery of healthcare information, training, and health systems management. Telemedicine refers more specifically to the delivery of remote clinical services.
Viewed in the past as a cost-control measure, telemedicine is now being used as a safety precaution to protect the lives of medical professionals and patients during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) issued guidance to healthcare workers to leverage telehealth tools at the start of the pandemic to evaluate suspected COVID-19 patients. Congress backed this recommendation by authorizing $500 million for the use of telehealth services in its first round of emergency aid in March. The legislation also eliminated certain Medicare limitations on telemedicine to encourage elderly patients to stay home and take advantage of remote care, unless respiratory issues become severe.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 50 U.S. health systems – including Mount Sinai, Cleveland Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente – already leverage telehealth technology that enables providers to see patients at home.
COVID-19 Telemedicine Delivery
Telemedicine delivery ranges from simple telephone consultations, FaceTime, and Skype to digital chatbots over a secure connection to check for symptoms and answer patient questions. Bots are used by some health systems to refer moderate-to-high-risk patients to triage lines and permit patients to schedule video visits. Immunocompromised individuals can have their concerns addressed without having to leave home, using video visits to avoid regularly scheduled in-person exams. Some telemedicine companies are releasing COVID-19 testing kits to be used at home, or at the least, free coronavirus assessments that direct those highest at risk to a digital interaction with their physician.
Both the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) advocate for the use of telehealth to monitor hospitalized patients. Some hospitals are using telemedicine carts equipped with video cameras and other equipment to enable a physician to check in on a patient without entering the room. In addition to infection control, these visits reduce the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for visits to the patient.
However, not all healthcare institutions have the equipment to deliver remote consultations, which typically take months of planning, testing, and training. The ability to deploy telehealth solutions to reach more patients in less time is certainly an incentive to ramp up delivery.
Social distancing will remain a way of life for the near future. Just as the majority of a remote workforce is discovering it can easily conduct business from home, the future of telemedicine is promising. Telehealth isn’t the solution for all healthcare delivery challenges during a crisis. However, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown healthcare workers, patients, and insurers its value, it will likely be integrated into many healthcare systems that weren’t already embracing it. Providers will need to assess telehealth solutions to determine which functions work best for them. Patient education is also essential, as they need to trust the systems used and know their privacy is protected.
Though there remain legal, regulatory, and reimbursement challenges to resolve, the COVID-19 crisis has elevated telemedicine as a cost-efficient and safe alternative tool for healthcare delivery.
GPP will continue to keep you posted through our COVID-19 Business Assistance and Resource Center. If your medical practice needs assistance during this challenging time, our COVID-19 Business Advisory and Planning Services Group is ready to assist.
For immediate questions, email CARETEAM@GPPcpa.com
Note: This content is accurate as of the date published above and is subject to change, as definitions change. Please seek professional advice before acting on any matter contained in this article.