The need to expeditiously address a public health emergency has never been as important as it is today. COVID-19 has mobilized practically everyone along its path to find solutions to stop it, flatten the curve, and provide care in whatever way possible.
Telehealth has risen to the challenge faced by the American healthcare system to meet patients’ needs during a national emergency. Technologies have become a lifeline for patients with chronic and serious conditions to continue to access care while socially distancing.
Remote care has kept both patients and providers safer and has facilitated efficiency in healthcare facilities' workflows and state-level responses against COVID-19. Still, health policy changes need to be made. Regulations need to be adjusted.
Telehealth can directly influence flattening the curve of demand on health systems worldwide, slowing transmission, and spreading incidence over a longer time period. But what sets a technology apart and ahead of the others is when it delivers care anytime, anywhere, on any device. It delivers the kind of real-time results needed in a public health emergency like the one we’re fighting now.
For telehealth to be widely deployed and serve its value for healthcare providers and patients alike while on stringent lockdown, certain considerations and accommodations need to be addressed. According to the White House, a critical part of the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response is to “... encourage private-sector solutions through targeted deregulation” that expands healthcare capacity and telehealth use leading to public health benefits.
The article from the White House states: “While telehealth’s immediate benefits are clear, it may also offer long-term promise by increasing healthcare access and providing higher-value care.”
Obstacles in telehealth’s way
In the pre-pandemic condition of healthcare, there had been historical obstacles to widespread use of telehealth across the U.S. healthcare system, according to the Journal of Clinical Pathways. But “... the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated these obstacles with a non-negotiable demand to adapt care delivery to address the crisis.”
In the JCP article, Susan Dentzer (@SusanDentzer), senior policy fellow at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, identifies these obstacles as privacy and security concerns, potential disruption of existing business models, lack of payment models, uneven broadband access, and the need for workforce retraining. But, she said, these obstacles have nothing to do with optimizing patient care.
With COVID-19 upending medical care and with healthcare providers and organizations rushing to implement telehealth, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued regulations to implement telehealth-related provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).
To significantly expand patients’ access to telehealth services, CMS issued a series of waivers and flexibilities along with coding and billing updates. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that during the pandemic it would not impose penalties for HIPAA noncompliance against providers leveraging telehealth platforms that may not comply with the privacy regulation.
Essential to the delivery of care through telehealth is speed. The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act (HB 6474) was introduced to enable the Federal Communications Commission to “... expand telehealth and high-quality internet connectivity at public and nonprofit healthcare facilities, including mobile clinics and temporary health facilities deployed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.”
An additional—frankly, necessary—value of telehealth is as a patient engagement platform that provides a rapid, scalable population outreach for COVID-19. Such a platform enables patient education, self‐assessment, and care coordination, all while helping to protect the larger population.
LifeWIRE, for example, provides a secure communications platform that allows government entities, health systems, and others connecting with a COVID-19 at-risk population to perform remote clinical triage and contact-tracing support. This provides a model that addresses both today’s and tomorrow’s concerns and needs to deliver healthcare services and enable population management.
Telehealth has stepped up as a valuable technology for safe and efficient communication of health information and patient education. It’s a tested means to optimize and deliver healthcare as well as to monitor and manage patients remotely.