Published: January 5, 2021
As a rapidly growing area of healthcare, telehealth has been in the news a lot recently, whether it’s in regards to new telehealth innovations and technology, changes to telehealth regulations and policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or increased use of telehealth by providers and patients. Read on for a summary of some of the latest news stories about telehealth.
Changes in telehealth due to COVID-19
Providers Hope Telehealth Becomes the Norm After COVID-19: Telehealth can offer a more accessible way to see patients, especially those who are wary of traditional health care settings. Many providers plan to continue telemedicine long after COVID-19 has passed.
Telemedicine usage spikes in pandemic, leaders look to post-COVID applications: Insurers have seen telehealth claims soar during the pandemic as doctors say telemedicine is saving lives. With telemedicine, they say, facilities can keep numbers down in facilities and waiting rooms so it’s safer for patients who require in-person visits. And at-risk patients can get continued care virtually without risking exposure.
Demand for virtual mental health care is soaring: Many teletherapy providers, including Teladoc, Ginger, and Doctor on Demand, have reported increases in the use of their virtual mental health care services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare experts attribute the increase in demand for these types of services to persistent issues affecting mental well-being, including economic, health, environmental, and societal crises. Among the groups that have seen the biggest increase in the use of teletherapy services are men, people who use Medicaid, and people over age 65.
With a little technical assistance, seniors warming up to telemedicine: The sudden pivot to telehealth has had a significant impact on senior citizens. Some seniors have had an easier time embracing the integration of technology and healthcare, while others are intimidated or confused by the technology, and anticipate the return to traditional doctor’s visits. Programs that teach seniors about internet etiquette and how to use video conferencing software like Zoom have seen their enrollment increase in part because more seniors must use the technology to access healthcare during the pandemic.
CMS reports 34.5M telehealth services delivered March through June: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reports more than 34.5 million services were delivered via telehealth to individuals enrolled in Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) between March and June 2020. This represents a 2,532% increase in telehealth services compared to the same period of 2019. Much of this increase can be attributed to relaxed regulations around virtual care in response to the pandemic and the desire to seek remote care to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19.
New telehealth technology, apps, and initiatives
Telemedicine Lauded as Healthcare Success Story of 2020: Telemedicine went mainstream in 2020 as patients and doctors signed up for services and adopted the use of telemedicine equipment such as digital in-home medical devices.
Phreesia Joins Zoom App Marketplace to Create a Better Telehealth Experience: Phreesia teamed up with Zoom to simplify patient intake during telehealth visits. Providers and patients can use a simple, secure registration process with unique meeting links for each telehealth appointment.
Students Create Telehealth Access for Seniors: In response to the increased reliance on telehealth to safely administer healthcare to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new national nonprofit is helping to connect seniors with the technology they need to access care virtually. Started by Yale University students, Telehealth Access for Seniors partners with health clinics to collect donated devices, like smartphones, and distribute them to patients who wouldn’t otherwise have a way to access telehealth. The organization also has a tech support team to help teach individuals how to use their devices.
ChristianaCare Designs its Own Telehealth Platform for Amazon Alexa: ChristianaCare, a health system in Delaware, recently unveiled its customized mHealth app for the Amazon Alexa, which gives patients personalized care management information at home. The Home Care Coach mHealth app helps guide patients and keep them in touch with their care team. This innovation makes ChristianaCare the latest entry to a growing list of hospitals and health systems that are leveraging digital-assistant technology to increase the adoption of telehealth services.
Has the Time Come for Hospital at Home?: The Mayo Clinic is testing a new “Hospital at Home” acute-care model that provides hospital-level care in an individual’s home using telemonitoring equipment, an audiovisual conferencing set-up, an IV stand, and more. This model, which the Mayo Clinic is implementing in a partnership with Boston-based telehealth company MedicallyHome, allows patients who meet criteria to recover from certain conditions or procedures at home rather than in rehabilitation facilities. Nurses perform regular home visits to check on patients who are otherwise remotely monitored 24/7 by Mayo clinicians.
Penn Students Launch Telehealth Program for Refugee Camps: Students from the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Penn Medicine, are launching a telehealth program to improve access to healthcare for residents of refugee camps around the world. The pilot site for the program titled the Connected Care Initiative (CCI) is the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp, and home to many members of the Rohingya tribe from neighboring Myanmar. While there are challenges with establishing an international telehealth program, the students and faculty involved in CCI are hopeful that the project will help bring more reliable healthcare to these vulnerable populations.
Cloudbreak Health Announces Telehealth Integration with Oneview Healthcare: A new partnership between unified telemedicine and video medical interpretation solutions provider Cloudbreak Health and point-of-care healthcare technology company Oneview Healthcare will offer patients and clinicians a new solution for overcoming language barriers. The partnership integrates Martti, Cloudbreak’s video remote interpretation (VRI) service, with Oneview’s virtual care platform, giving patients and providers an easy-to-use solution for patients who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or speak one of 250 different languages. Cloudbreak’s interpretation services will be deployed in Oneview’s bedside devices in hospitals, so patients can utilize the services during their stay.
When telehealth rolled into the barbershop: In Los Angeles, a group of investigators is seeking to address healthcare disparities faced by Black men by bringing mobile healthcare to patients in places they normally frequent, like barbershops. The initiative focuses on controlling blood pressure, due to the disproportionate number of Black men who suffer from heart disease. Pharmacists set up mobile carts with blood pressure cuffs in barbershops for initial consultations, and follow up with patients virtually. After the initial success of the program in Los Angeles, the project was replicated in Nashville with the intention of expanding it throughout the U.S. and including other at-risk populations.
Telehealth legislation, regulations, and insurance coverage
Senate Committee Clears Bill Requiring Expanded Coverage Under Telemedicine and Telehealth Law: Pending legislation could require health benefits plans to reimburse for telemedicine and telehealth services equal to the reimbursement rate for the same services performed in person. The law would ensure pay parity for services rendered.
Top 5 Telehealth Law Predictions for 2021: The National Law Review sees licensing reciprocity, technology-neutral laws that prioritize the quality of care, greater privacy sensitivity, telemedicine enforcement actions, and continued expansion of telehealth reimbursement on the horizon in 2021.
Dozens of orgs call on DEA to enable remote prescription of controlled substances: A group of more than 80 organizations has called on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to permanently implement a telemedicine special registration that would allow providers to prescribe medication-assisted treatment to patients with opioid use disorder. Led by the Alliance for Connected Care, the group sent a letter to DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, noting that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s opioid epidemic has gotten worse, lending a sense of urgency to the change in regulations. Although the Trump administration signed legislation in 2018 to specify regulations around special registration for telemedicine providers, little progress has been made to design and implement these regulations.
Lawmakers Introduce New Bill Paving the Way For Home Health Telehealth Reimbursement: Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to reimburse home health providers for telehealth visits. The Home Health Emergency Access to Telehealth (HEAT) Act is a bipartisan bill introduced by U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ben Cardin (D-Md), and U.S. Representatives Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). The bill aims to provide Medicare reimbursement for audio and video telehealth services furnished by home health agencies during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
CMS Expands List of Telehealth Services Covered by Medicare: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently expanded the list of telehealth services that Medicare Fee-for-Service will cover during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency added coverage for 11 telehealth services, bringing the total of Medicare-covered telehealth services to 144. All of these services will be covered by Medicare for the duration of the public health emergency. CMS is also providing additional support to state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) agencies to expand access to telehealth.
Only 20% of hospitals will offer telehealth if reimbursement drops: Although many health insurance providers increased coverage for telehealth services during the pandemic, it’s unknown whether those changes will be permanent, which could result in a significant number of health systems discontinuing their telehealth offerings. Only 20% of U.S. health systems would continue offering telehealth services if reimbursement rates return to pre-pandemic levels, while another 30% are unsure, according to a new joint KLAS Research and Center for Connected Medicine survey. If health systems decrease their telehealth services, it could drive patients to virtual care start-ups that offer telehealth services.
Some Insurers Stop Waiving Fees or Deductibles for Telemedicine: Two of the nation’s largest health insurance providers, Anthem and United Healthcare, no longer waive copayments and deductibles for virtual doctor’s visits that are not related to COVID-19. Patients who were relying on telemedicine appointments for other issues, like monitoring chronic conditions or getting a consultation for an acute illness, will be responsible for their copay as if it were a regular in-person appointment. The move has drawn criticism from some health experts, as they fear it could discourage people from seeking necessary medical care.