Technology is connecting patients to their healthcare needs as the COVID-19 crisis continues. Patient demands for convenient, secure and simple experiences combined with social distancing have spurred technology adoption. The need for virtual care delivery has placed telehealth at the forefront of this industry-wide digital transformation.
What is telehealth and what is its value?
The Health Resources and Services Administration defines telehealth as the support of long-distance clinical health care through electronic information and telecommunication technology. Also included is the digital support of patient and professional health-related education. Related technologies include wireless and terrestrial communications, videoconferencing, streaming media and the internet.
The United States records more than 800 million physicians visits a year. When the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released its guidelines for limited in-person interactions, providers turned to virtual care to support the high volume of visits. Healthcare professionals can virtually deliver care to patients with chronic conditions who need regular medical attention – as well as many non-life-threatening situations – while minimizing the spread of germs in this volatile environment.
For patients, virtual care options are more popular than ever. Access to critical healthcare services without leaving home is worthwhile protection during the global pandemic. The delivery of simple, convenient and on-demand experiences helps to create the type of digital experiences patients demand. In the first week of March 2020 alone, virtual care provider Teladoc saw daily patient visits increase by 50% from the month prior.
The pressure that COVID-19 continues to put on healthcare systems has accelerated the use of telehealth today, but this virtual care option has been part of the healthcare industry for some time. Barriers like digital illiteracy, security and privacy concerns, broadband access and physician licensing have historically slowed widespread adoption.
What is the government doing to address telehealth accessibility?
The Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) recognizes the value of virtual care like telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis. Several regulatory changes are underway to help make virtual care more accessible and to address adoption barriers. Examples include:
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the Keep Americans Connected Initiative in response to the challenge of limited broadband access.
- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued temporary measures to make billing and receiving telehealth services easier for those enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The CMS has also expanded its list of covered telehealth services.
- States are making temporary shifts to their policies regarding physician licensing to help make the delivery and receiving of virtual care more accessible.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights is waiving penalties and employing enforcement discretion related to HIPAA violations against healthcare providers that deliver service to patients in good faith during the COVID-19 emergency through common telecommunications tools like Skype or FaceTime.
COVID-19 has required healthcare to respond with agility, reevaluation and innovation. As telehealth adoption drives new ways for patients and providers to engage and a reassessment of related regulations, it is evident that these shifts will have lasting impacts on the healthcare industry.