• Swathi Lakshmi

Telemedicine as the New Normal

Updated: May 7

Coronavirus (COVID-19 or SARS-COV-2) changed the way healthcare professionals interact with each other and with their patients. In the wake of the pandemic, in-office visits are going the way of the old-fashioned house call when it comes to delivering care. In fact, telemedicine may even become the new normal in medical care.

Sometimes used interchangeably with the term “telehealth,” telemedicine is the use of software and electronic communications to provide clinical services to patients without an in-person visit. Telemedicine is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of services, including teleconferencing visits between doctors and patients, consultations between doctors and specialists or patients and specialists, remote monitoring of patient vital signs, targeted text messages, online discussion groups, and even notifications about disease outbreaks. Mobile Health (mHealth) is the use of smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices that can monitor everything from a patient’s blood glucose levels to their daily water intake. Asynchronous Video, also known as Store-and-Forward, delivers a patient’s documented health history to specialist in another location electronically.

Telemedicine has been around for decades, but it is gaining popularity in the United States. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, doctors from the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute and Norfolk State Hospital used a closed-circuit television link to perform psychiatric consultations. Adoption of telemedicine has accelerated in the past ten years. Approximately 35 percent of hospitals used some form of telemedicine in 2010, according to the American Hospital Association, and about 76 percent of hospitals had started using telemedicine by 2017. The spread of COVID-19 is spurring the use of telemedicine as healthcare organizations seek new ways to keep practitioners, staff, and patients safe.

More than 50 health systems in the United States, including Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, Jefferson Health, Mount Sinai, and Providence, now use telemedicine technology to see patients who are at home. Many of these health systems are using telemedicine to create a “forward triage” to screen patients before they reach the emergency department. Healthcare providers can evaluate symptoms, collect a patient health history, and review travel and exposure history, all from a remote location.

In times of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreaks of other infectious diseases, telemedicine creates a patient-centered approach that is conducive to self-quarantine and protects patients, clinicians and others in the community from exposure.

During the coronavirus crisis, many Medicare, Medicaid, and a number of insurance companies are relaxing their restrictions when it comes to paying for telemedicine. Clinicians can bill Medicare immediately for dates of service starting March 6, 2020, according to CMS, for example. Insurers, however, do not provide equal coverage.

As the outbreak subsides and people go back to their normal lives, telemedicine will likely continue to be an important part of 21st Century medicine. Patients and providers will come to expect the use of telemedicine, and a growing number of insurance providers will offer coverage. Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations can start planning now to move towards workflows that allow them to implement and grow their telemedicine practice.

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