Telehealth: 5 Reasons it Took a Pandemic to Make it Mainstream

No doubt about it, COVID-19 is changing the way that we work, live and play. It has pushed us to adopt approaches that we may have been resistant to before – from working from home to online education to telehealth.

Telehealth, in particular, has been waiting for its moment. The first recorded case of telemedicine happened more than 60 years ago (!) when the Nebraska Psychiatry Institute began using closed-circuit TV for psychiatric consultations. Telehealth as we know it today required many technological innovations – personal computers, the internet, smartphones – but wide-scale adoption was being held back by factors that had nothing to do with technology. Good old red tape – and old habits. 

As we try to squeeze our COVID-19 lemons into lemonade, here are five ways that this pandemic has given telehealth the nudge that it needed:

1. Changing regulatory and licensing requirements

Historically, with limited exceptions, telehealth consultations with a physician across state lines required licensing paperwork. Physicians were required to be licensed in the state where the patient was located at the time of treatment. As a result of new COVID-19 policies, CMS is waiving this requirement for Medicare patients and states are able to require a waiver for Medicaid patients.

CMS has also expanded the list of services that can be provided via telehealth and the delivery method, including virtual check-ins, e-visits, and telephone services for patients – whether they are new or established.

2. Reducing the burden on health care providers

“Flatten the curve” has been the rallying cry – and Americans seem to understand the concept. Let’s not flood our health care system – with COVID cases or illnesses that can be managed via telemedicine. Telehealth is helping support efficient utilization of health care by assessing patient symptoms and helping triage patients based upon their needs. Will this change what constitutes a trip to the doctor’s office or ER versus a telehealth consult? Time will tell.

3. Changing consumer behavior

In a December 2017 survey, 82 percent of U.S. respondents said that they do not use telehealth. Fast forward to March/April 2020 – according to a new survey, two-thirds of respondents say that COVID-19 has increased their willingness to try telehealth in the future. One-quarter of respondents had not considered this as an option before.

4. Increasing reimbursement

Effective March 1 and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare will pay physicians for telehealth services at the same rate as in-office visits for all diagnoses, not just services related to COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, many physicians were reimbursed at only a fraction of their in-office visit rate (if at all) for telehealth services.

5. Evolving care for rural communities

Rural health care was challenged before COVID-19 with more than 350 rural hospitals at high risk of closure. These community hospitals have razor-thin margins that rely on procedures like elective surgeries and imaging that have been slashed during COVID-19. The reality is that health care delivery in rural communities needs to move to greater use of telemedicine for routine care and COVID-19 has helped shine a light on some of the continued barriers – including lack of broadband access. New CMS provisions are helping bridge the technology gap by allowing physicians to provide audio-only telephone evaluation and management visits for new and established patients, which is especially helpful for rural communities and seniors.

Telehealth has been underutilized for many years due to outdated regulations that limited its growth. If there is anything positive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it just might be that telehealth emerges as a long-term solution to many of the challenges we are facing with health care utilization and rural health care. Is this just the start of a new dawn for telehealth? Or will CMS and consumers revert to pre-COVID regulations and behaviors?  

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