COVID-19 has reshaped the world at large – and also how medical practices offer care for patients. Telehealth and virtual care have become key in providing treatment for patients with COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related ailments. Efficient, affordable, and easy to implement, they promote social distancing, protect providers and patients, and free up valuable hospital resources for those who need it the most.
Telehealth: A Quick Primer
Telehealth is the umbrella name given to the practice of providing healthcare remotely using electronic or telecommunications technologies. These technologies may include video conferencing, streaming media, or telephone-based communications. Telehealth has long been important for rural providers as a way to serve patients at remote sites.
Telehealth as the New House Call
Patients are increasingly concerned about seeking in-person treatment due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. For the same reason, many clinics are unable to provide in-person care for individuals who may be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. As a result, telehealth has become the new “house call” – a way to provide care while reducing exposure risks, or treat people who are quarantined at home. Telehealth can also be used to screen people for COVID-19.
While a virtual visit cannot replace an in-person visit, it can help with screening, allow practitioners to monitor patients with mild symptoms or chronic illnesses, or help practitioners decide whether patients need to be seen one-on-one or sent to another facility. Virtual visits also have the benefit of keeping healthcare facilities from becoming overwhelmed by reserving resources for those most in need.
Telehealth for All
Because of a change in Medicare reimbursements due to COVID-19, telehealth can now be provided to patients across the country – and without the requirement that only specific HIPAA-compliant technology can be used. Thanks to temporarily relaxed HIPAA rules, clinics are able to use the video conferencing software of their choice to provide care without having to worry about noncompliance. Options range from healthcare-specific apps to popular apps such as Apple FaceTime or Skype, so long as the software is non-public-facing. A list of popular providers can be found here.
In addition to Medicare reimbursements, providers can take advantage of telehealth provisions in the CARES spending package. This $200m package will help healthcare systems around the nation expand their telehealth capacity.
Shifting to Telehealth
If your practice is new to telehealth, the AMA’s updated Digital Health Implementation Playbook offers excellent tips for getting started. These include identifying use cases, putting together teams, defining success metrics, and more. With increased reimbursements, reduced regulatory barriers, and dramatically increased patient need, now is the time to begin a telehealth rollout.
Telehealth cannot replace the value of an in-person visit, but it can be a vital way of providing care in a time where facilities are overwhelmed, and social distancing is essential. With telehealth already growing from strength to strength, practices that make the shift will be able to deliver value not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but further ahead as well.