Telehealth: Hope for the Future?

Will telehealth be our new hope for the future? Or just a thing of the past?

You’ve probably already heard more news about the COVID-19 pandemic than you wanted to, but with its widespread effects on the American economy and everyone’s day-to-day lifestyle, it’s hard not to pay attention to it. In particular, I’ll be talking about how this virus has singlehandedly pioneered the future of telemedicine as we know it.

Telemedicine has been crucial in keeping social distancing practices while still nurturing that patient-physician relationship. Health experts and physicians have spent the past couple months looking at how technological tools have been used to conduct what would’ve been in-person appointments. While telehealth’s applications for the future look promising, there is an urgency for making the much needed legislative measures to ensure telehealth as the “new normal,” even after the coronavirus dies down.

“The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has pushed telehealth and mHealth to center stage as healthcare providers of all sizes look to provide care on virtual platforms. But the emergency — and the legislative and policy measures enacted to deal with it — won’t last forever.” Eric Wicklund from mHealthIntelligence

Adam Kurtz from the Grand Forks Herald writes that some states have issued temporary telehealth policies that will soon go away once the national emergency is declared to be over. An executive order in Minnesota signed on April 6 allows out-of-state practitioners to provide telehealth services until the state’s “peacetime emergency is terminated.” Similarly, Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota signed an executive order on March 20 that requires insurance companies to cover virtual doctor’s visits as they would in-person. However, some insurance companies have lowered their coverage for a telehealth session by as much as 30%.

These two circumstances highlight only some of the barriers allowing the expansion of telehealth on a national level — standardizing provider licensing across state borders, and differing payment coverage of virtual appointments by private insurance companies and Medicaid. And with this reliance on the internet comes even more barriers, such as data privacy under HIPAA standards and sufficient broadband internet access.

Hmm, it turns out that the transition to telehealth practices isn’t as easy as we thought! But with any policy reform, we have to be specific with what changes we want to see. The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has outlined nine recommendations to be included in the next coronavirus relief bill, further extending the life of telehealth. Some of these include amending Medicare Part B cost sharing to increase flexibility for telehealth use, and providing a payroll tax credit for COVID-19 hospital facility expenditures, which includes the purchase of telemedicine equipment and additional telehealth training. Take a look at the rest of these reforms here!

As the global pandemic continues to unfold, we have to be aware of how our world will change — this starts with educating ourselves. While growing the telehealth industry has lots of benefits, it’s very important that we recognize the hurdles we must jump in order to make it a lasting industry for the future.

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