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A rise in virtual care, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, puts telehealth at the forefront of an industry-wide digital transformation. Patient demands for convenient and secure experiences combined with social distancing have spurred technology adoption.

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 physician 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 visits 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 the COVID-19 pandemic 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:

  • In 2020, Congress, as part of the CARES Act, appropriated $200 million in funding for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to help healthcare providers deliver connected services to patients. As of early 2021, the application process for a second round of funding is under review.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued temporary regulatory waivers 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 during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • 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 in conjunction with the good faith use of online scheduling applications for the scheduling of COVID-19 vaccinations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic 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.

Patient Engagement and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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