By Charlie Hutchinson
With the Covid-19 crisis in full swing, telehealth use has skyrocketed. In 2020 alone, the U.S. telehealth market is projected to reach $10 billion, marking an 80% year-over-year growth due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s also easier than ever for healthcare providers to enhance their service offerings with telehealth. In March, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) temporarily waived enforcement of certain parts of HIPAA. Where previously remote communications technologies must have been HIPAA compliant, the pandemic has made consulting with patients about minor acute issues — like rashes or eye infections — easier, only requiring an internet connection and a device.
But for many specialist providers, transitioning to telehealth is a new venture. Providers who don’t typically address acute or urgent-care needs now face the challenge of transitioning to remote models of care — and it isn’t as cut and dry as simply picking out a system that works with an existing EHR. For example, in disciplines such as dermatology, store-and-forward capabilities are critical, but in physical therapy, a telehealth program’s value is associated with its ability to support uninterrupted virtual rehab sessions. Other specialists, such as oral surgeons, must navigate much broader limitations as to what they can and cannot do remotely.
The good news is that technology has evolved, and there are a growing number of use cases for speech therapists, physical therapists, psychiatrists and other care providers — even after social distancing guidelines wane.
As economies start to reopen, forward-thinking specialists will identify the right way to implement telehealth, as well as figure out what can and cannot be adapted to virtual parameters.
Exploring New Specialist Telehealth Applications
Some limitations to telehealth are obvious. For example, a healthcare provider can’t perform elective surgeries, take a throat swab or diagnose strep throat over a virtual network.
Yet many providers are surprised to learn what they can do over a telehealth interface.
In the behavioral health realm, telehealth has expanded beyond the virtual couch — or two-way video consultation. For example, substance-abuse professionals can now oversee the administration of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) therapy over a telehealth network. Only a handful of providers did this pre-COVID-19, because the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 only allowed providers to prescribe controlled substances for treatment if they’d had an in-person examination with the patient. But on March 16, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) invoked the public health emergency exception to the law, opening the door for substance-abuse professionals and providers to reach more patients and prevent drug relapse.
Physical therapy is another specialty where some questioned whether a remote care environment would work, but is demonstrating some impressive growth. Part of this surge of interest is fueled by The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) April 30 announcement regarding its plans to expand telehealth coverage to physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists. While the American Physical Therapy Association advises providers to carefully consider whether “the risk of exposure to COVID-19 outweighs the benefits of immediate treatment,” patients are reporting positive experiences with telehealth treatment plans.
And among dermatologists, the industry is seeing growth in virtual check-ins, consultations and store-and-forward applications (e.g., when a patient sends photographs of suspicious lesions to a doctor for evaluation and treatment).
These are just a few examples. Telehealth technology is continually evolving, and it won’t be long before we see integration with remote monitoring devices and diagnostic equipment.
Fine Tuning Your Approach
When evaluating their approaches to telehealth, specialists should think about long-term applications, rather than viewing telehealth as a stopgap before patient visits can resume in-person care. While CMS has waived the requirement to use HIPAA-compliant telehealth technology, such waivers aren’t expected to extend indefinitely.
Here’s what to consider when choosing a telehealth platform:
- Virtual opportunities. As the American Medical Association has noted, it’s important to gain an understanding of what can and cannot (or should not) be delivered virtually during this time. Specialists should seek guidance from state licensing boards or talk to other specialists to gain a greater understanding of best practices for virtual care.
- Collaborative capabilities. A telehealth system should be easy to use and equipped with the ability to transmit and receive notes and videos, so a patient’s care-collaboration network — physicians, social workers, therapists, etc. — can stay on the same page.
- EHR support. Telehealth technology should provide a seamless, uninterrupted experience between providers and patient. It also should also be easy to schedule appointments, document care rendered during the telehealth encounter within a practice’s existing EHR and share information back to the patient via online portal.
- RCM support. Billing telehealth in March and April caused some confusion, as payers and providers needed to get up to speed on coverage changes. But while that’s still a work in progress, a practice shouldn’t have to worry about billing — there should be functions within a telehealth system that automate scheduling and billing.
- Flexibility. No two specialty practices, even within the same discipline, are alike. A telehealth vendor should be able to offer some customization, or modification, to fit practice workflows.
There’s no time like the present to consider how telehealth could benefit patients, as they await the return of in-person visits. While patients endure physical separation from specialist providers, they can maintain some continuity of care through virtual technology, now and in the future.
Charlie Hutchinson is CFO, InSync Healthcare Solutions.