The COVID-19 pandemic is giving patients and providers the ability to try virtual care on a large scale.
According to Definitive Healthcare, half of outpatient hospitals offered telehealth services in 2019. Only one-third of inpatient hospitals offered virtual care in 2019, likely due to barriers like implementation costs.
Concern over COVID-19 led patients across the U.S. to avoid in-person healthcare. This led to the explosion of virtual medicine. Over 41 million telehealth claims were filed between April and July 2020. This marks a 4,000% year-over-year increase over the same time period in 2019.
Below, we've outlined four key consideration points for implementing telemedicine services.
Benefits of telemedicine
1. Improving rural care and solving staffing shortages
As provider shortages continue, it's hard to find physicians willing to move to rural hospitals. It is even more difficult to find specialists that can provide more targeted care.
Rural hospitals are key points of care in the communities they serve - often the only accessible care facilities. But rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate. Hospital closures are often due to a lack of resources and small patient populations. This leaves patients without access to reliable medical care.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is focused on telemedicine in rural America. One method is through the Connect America Fund. This supports new broadband infrastructure in remote areas.
Broadband installation can help in three ways:
- Enable city-based physicians to treat more patients
- Connect specialists to rural hospitals, and
- Give patients access to a wider pool of physicians
Broadband could enable better telehealth services. Rural patients could then experience faster diagnoses and better follow up care. Telehealth could also prevent travel that would otherwise be a barrier.
Telehealth platforms can also relieve some strain from healthcare staffing shortages. They can connect patients to remote providers and keep them in-network. This is most impactful when patients are referred to specialists.
2. Greater patient satisfaction
The shift toward value based care and consumerization emphasizes patients' needs. Telehealth reduces wait times and lowers care costs. This appeals to patients and improves HCAHPS scores. Telehealth can also improve other quality metrics associated with value-based care.
Reduced wait times
Telemedicine technologies help patients avoid long waits in a doctor's office. A telemedicine check-in can help patients get faster opinions on health concerns. Patients can seek additional treatment in person if needed. Rural hospitals using telemedicine in their ERs saw patients six times more quickly than hospitals that did not.
A 2018 Humana study found that on average, telehealth visits cost $76 less than in-person visits. This cost reduction is significant given the rising costs of healthcare in the U.S.
Challenges associated with telemedicine
1. Security and fraud concerns
There are significant privacy and security risks in telehealth systems. These can impact patient and clinician trust as well as willingness to adopt and use the system. With telemedicine, there are a few concerns:
- Physicians must ensure they’re in a location where no one can overhear the virtual visits. Otherwise, this would violate HIPAA’s privacy and confidentiality requirements.
- Some telehealth devices may collect and send information about substance abuse or housing.
- Smartphone apps may share sensitive data with advertisers and other third parties.
- Hackers and malware pose a security threat despite development efforts.
More than 14 million patient records were breached in 2019 alone. Over 580 hospitals & IDNs were subjects of hacking or IT security breaches in the last 2 years, according to Definitive Healthcare data.
2. New legal and compliance issues
As physicians add telemedicine services, they need to consider legal and compliance issues. This includes everything from telemedicine-specific regulations to Medicare coverage restrictions.
Telemedicine allows providers to cross states to provide care. This raises licensing concerns. With telemedicine, a physician is “practicing medicine” at the patient's location. So, it is critical for provider to verify the patient’s location at the time of the consultation. This ensures they have the appropriate state license to provide the tele-care.
There are many restrictions on the use of telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances. This is particularly due to the U.S. opioid crisis.
Coverage for telemedicine varies. State Medicaid programs can decide when telemedicine visits are covered. Under Medicare, telemedicine is currently only covered if:
- The service utilizes real time, two-way, audio-visual telecommunications
- The patient is at a qualified physician practice or hospital (with many in rural or remote areas)
- The provider is credentialed and authorized for practicing telemedicine
- The service itself is approved by CMS for telemedicine
Are you looking for more information on how COVID-19 is expanding telehealth use? Register for our webinar panel on September 24 at 2pm! COVID-19 As a Digital Transformer: Telehealth Accelerates & There’s No Looking Back
In this webinar, panelists will explore:
- What COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 virtual care look like
- What the changes in telehealth restrictions mean for patients and providers
- Other ways digital expansion in healthcare can continue to evolve to accommodate a virtual care model
- How this will impact healthcare-focused sales and marketing
Originally published in July 2019 under the title "4 Ways Telemedicine is Changing Healthcare".