As hospitals and doctors’ offices continue to be overburdened by staff shortages and patient overload, telehealth offerings keep pace in providing a wide-range of patient care access, overcoming racial inequality, transportation barriers from rural communities, and treating chronic medical conditions.
Therefore, while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, industry groups report that healthcare providers across the nation have made significant changes in their practices to safely treat patients remotely long-term. These providers have invested in purchasing new technology, training staff, changing clinical schedules, and helping their patients obtain and navigate the new technology.
Unfortunately, many telehealth waivers were created to be temporary and limited to the duration of the COVID-19 PHE–even though they have improved patient access to care and affect both public health programs and private health coverage.
There is now an ongoing debate on what temporary telehealth policies should be made permanent.
In late January, more than 330 organizations (including EHI, the Alliance for Connected Care, and the American Telemedicine Association) sent a letter to congressional leaders requesting temporary extension of telehealth waivers as a pathway toward permanent telehealth policies.
Dr. Sachi Horback, Vice President of Clinical Talent and Success at SteadyMD, applauds the move. “We know that many of our communities lack access to high quality healthcare. Access can mean physical/geographic access, but it also refers to clinicians who represent the identities and needs of the patients they serve. Diverse representation and culturally informed care are critical to improving the health disparities and systemic inequities that continue to exist.”
One of the major demographics benefited by telehealth services are senior citizens who receive coverage through Medicare. Current law states telehealth services will stay covered by Medicare through 2023, but after that the future of remote healthcare for older Americans remains uncertain. Additionally, older patients with chronic illnesses are weary telehealth services can provide the same level of care as in-person treatment.
Dr. Horback understands this concern and acknowledges there was a time that clinicians questioned whether high quality patient care was a possibility from a virtual perspective. However, the COVID-19 pandemic propelled the medical world to move online out of necessity. “What we found was that patients were able to receive exceptional care from strong clinicians and adaptable technology solutions. In fact, many clinicians and patients came to prefer telehealth when possible. It diminished the risk of in-person contact, yet benefited the patient in speaking with a trusted provider from the comfort and safety of their own home.”
Despite these types of assurances, some providers don’t believe remote healthcare has all the answers figured out. Many of them worry about technical problems associated with telemedicine that could cause patient mismanagement and distrust.
There are also bigger concerns at play – fraud. Fraudulent and abusive telehealth practices was an area identified by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as an enforcement priority even prior to the COVID-19 PHE. With telehealth becoming a permanent fixture in healthcare, it will be on the government’s enforcement radar for years to come.
So, do the pros of making permanent telemedicine policies outweigh the concerns of doubt? Dr. Scott Soerries, Medical Director for SteadyMD, believes they do. In his expert opinion, telehealth visits are equal to or more effective than in-person visits because they give patients better, faster access to quality care. This includes acute care and chronic care management. But, he agrees there are times a hybrid or in-person appointment would be the best approach.
Dr. Soerries says, “A hybrid option would be needed when the patient’s vital signs need to be measured or to have a test completed. A trained person can go to the patient’s location, and while there, connect with the healthcare provider virtually to evaluate the patient as a team.”
“Patients are best served with in-person management if they have potentially life threatening conditions. This would include things like chest pain and difficulty breathing, or those who need a more extensive evaluation such as patients with abdominal pain,” Dr. Soerries concludes.
Finally, how does the payer landscape affect access to telehealth? And can it bring down the cost of soaring healthcare costs?
Dr. Horback reveals, “Our country has a shocking number of people without health insurance. Even if they are able to get insurance privately, the premiums and deductibles are astronomical.”
Telemedicine may decrease spending if it’s utilized in areas where there is a costly and preventable ensuing event; such as a visit to the ER, referral to see a specialist, or inpatient services. In these cases, telemedicine could reduce spending even if upfront use of services increases.
In summary, value in telemedicine encompasses quality, costs, and access. If quality can stay high, costs low and access open, investing in long-term telehealth is a world-wide necessity and regulatory waivers introduced during the pandemic should be made permanent.
SteadyMD is a B2B white-label telehealth platform. It powers high-quality telehealth experiences for digital healthcare companies, labs, pharmacies, large employers, and other healthcare innovators. The company offers a 50-state clinician workforce, clinical operations, and world-class product and technology.
Dr. Sachi Horback is Vice President of Clinical Talent & Success for SteadyMD under the Medical Operations Management Team. She’s also a clinical psychologist with a background in higher education. She previously held the position of Chief Academic Officer at Clark College and was an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Colby-Sawyer College.
Dr. Scott Soerries is a Medical Director for SteadyMD, where he leads the medical team’s mission of making high-quality, personalized healthcare available and affordable to millions of Americans. He previously held the position of National Medical Director for Walgreens Healthcare Clinics and is board certified in Family Medicine.