At a recent Congressional hearing about telehealth, a number of the senators expressed their support to make permanent the expanded access to Medicare telehealth services that were initiated in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.1 They recognized the benefits of minimizing the risk of exposure for vulnerable populations and providing greater access to care, particularly for people in rural or remote areas. As more people and healthcare providers experience telehealth for the first time, it is swiftly shifting from a nice-to-have option to a required service line for many health care organizations.
Changes to Telehealth Provisions
As COVID-19 was first spreading across the US in March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) made 31 temporary changes in federal telehealth policy to support providers, physicians and patients, including:
- Reimbursing physicians for telehealth regardless of the patient’s location or “originating site” – including for patients who are at home
- Allowing Medicare and Medicaid to reimburse providers for nearly twice as many types of telehealth services as before, including emergency department visits, initial nursing facility visits and discharges, and therapy services
- Permitting doctors to conduct appointments using common apps like FaceTime or texting, or even visits via landline phone
- Expanding the list of practitioners who can provide Medicare-reimbursable telehealth services
After the changes went into effect, the number of telehealth-related CMS claims reportedly increased more than 11,000% in only 1.5 months!2 This willingness to use telehealth is reflected beyond just CMS claimants — in a recent survey, two-thirds of respondents indicated that COVID-19 increased their willingness to try telehealth in the future.3 And one of our local partners, WakeMed, a Raleigh-based health system, saw a 4x spike in demand for their virtual urgent care service over a 3-month period during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Move Toward Value-Based Care
My own experiences, both as a user and provider of telehealth, have demonstrated how telehealth can provide value to patients and healthcare organizations alike. I was inspired to start RelyMD when my niece was injured after hours for her pediatrician and urgent care centers. I was able to examine the wound and provide care instructions via video on my smartphone, saving my sister and niece a trip to the emergency room.
Many patients find healthcare systems difficult to navigate, and this is a perfect example of how virtual access to a physician can help direct the patient to the best place of in-person care when needed or, as in the case of my niece, provide instructions to confidently manage care at home. We’re able to provide faster, better service for patients, ultimately improving their health.
At the same time, in-person visits can be more efficient because by getting evaluated before leaving home, our expert providers can direct you to the right level of care. We frequently see patients who go to an urgent care only to get evaluated and then told to go to the ER for more testing because their condition is worrisome. that results in extra hours and extra costs. telehealth allows for an evaluation on the front end with the right advice from the start – oftentimes preventing a visit to any type of facility at all.
Our RelyMD medical team recently created specific COVID-19 protocols to help WakeMed’s patients seek remote care when experiencing flu-like symptoms, they were concerned about potential infection exposure or simply wanted to avoid healthcare facilities. For mild symptoms, patients are encouraged to log into WakeMed Virtual Urgent Care. Physicians, who were immediately available, help assess and guide patients to the most appropriate level of care. As a result, WakeMed is not only helping patients avoid unnecessary exposure, they are also keeping their frontline workers safe.
Future of Telehealth
It’s encouraging to see that CMS recognizes the ability of telehealth to deliver accessible, reliable healthcare to patients and provide care delivery options for health organizations that enable efficient care coordination within their networks. At some point, COVID-19 will become a part of our past. With ongoing federal support, telehealth can continue to be a normal way to see a doctor, providing a way for health care organizations to deliver value-based, patient-centered care.
- Frieden J. COVID-19 changes to telehealth rules should stick, senator says. https://www.medpagetoday.com/practicemanagement/reimbursement/87140 Accessed July 10, 2020.
- Pifer R. Medicare members using telehealth grew 120 times in early weeks of COVID-19 as regulations eased. https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/medicare-seniors-telehealth-covid-coronavirus-cms-trump/578685/ Accessed July 10, 2020.
- Survey Report: Americans’ perceptions of telehealth in the era of COVID-19. https://www.sykes.com/reports/2020-telehealth-survey/ Accessed July 10, 2020.
RelyMD is a growing digital health company that provides a coordinated telehealth solution to health systems, managed care organizations, and employers. Founded by a group of innovative emergency medicine physicians and healthcare entrepreneurs, we’re on a mission to simplify people’s lives by delivering reliable, trusted medical care – anytime and anywhere – that fosters healthier communities and workplaces. Learn how these recent regulatory changes are helping hospitals drive revenue.
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