Telehealth’s convenience and value were highlighted when fears about the coronavirus pandemic prompted individuals to look for a way to get medical advice without having to go to a doctor’s office.
Telehealth is the practice of using computers, tablets and smartphones to provide health care and services at a distance. Telemedicine refers specifically to the practice of using technology to deliver care from one location to a patient at a distant site.
More and more group insurance plans feature telehealth services as part of their benefits. One reason is that a telehealth visit is less expensive for a plan than a visit to a provider’s office. For instance, a study published in JAMA Dermatology showed that on average a telehealth visit costs about $79, compared with about $146 for an office visit.
The federal government has recently jumped on the telemedicine bandwagon. The Trump administration announced a major expansion of telehealth options, including allowing Americans enrolled in Medicare to talk to a doctor by phone or video chat for no additional cost.
In addition, when the COVID-19 outbreak threatened to stress hospital capacities, the House of Representatives included in its $8.3 billion emergency response bill a provision to assist efforts to contain the virus by temporarily lifting restrictions on Medicare telehealth coverage. The bill waives and modifies certain requirements for telehealth services during the pandemic, allowing Medicare to offer telemedicine beyond just rural areas.
At the beginning of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, certain states, such as Massachusetts and Florida, have expanded telehealth coverage to make it easier for doctors and patients to connect online and to ensure that physicians get paid. Some states, like Washington, are acting to permit doctors to treat patients even if they’re not licensed in the state as long as they can legally practice in another state.
Telehealth gives patients around the clock access to care and enables providers to treat more patients than in office settings. Telehealth providers can ask questions, prescribe medications or if needed refer patients to get treatment at a doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room.
The most obvious benefit of talking to a doctor online or by phone, especially during the pandemic, is that the visit can take place without exposing the patient, the doctor or others in the office or waiting room to any kind of contagion. Not only could others be put at risk, but in the case of health care workers during the pandemic, they could be put out of commission for 14 days of quarantine.
Also, keeping patients who have contracted the virus or any disease at home allows health care workers to provide care at a distance, reserving hospitals for higher need patients.
Regulations vary from state to state and there is a lack of clarity about what is allowed, often making it difficult for physicians to get accredited to use telehealth solutions across state borders.
While some states have loosened accreditation requirements, necessitated by the spike in demand for health care during coronavirus pandemic, many telehealth providers are having a hard time keeping up with demand.
There’s also a concern that physical exams provided by phone or computer are not as accurate as those that are done in person.
Issues also exist about personal medical data security and its potential to be used for data mining or to create targeted advertising.
Before telehealth can become a truly valuable resource these issues will need to be addressed.