If there is any type of silver lining for the Covid-19 pandemic – it’s telehealth. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in February 2020, less than 1% of primary care visits were conducted via telehealth and by April 2020, that number rose to 43.5%. With the lifted restrictions and rapid adoption thereof, people are now seeing that providing healthcare from a distance is certainly possible. For seniors, the option to stay in the comfort and safety of their own homes while receiving virtual care has proved invaluable, especially given the risk to Covid-19 exposure while traveling. With social distancing still in place, access to virtual mental health services has also become increasingly essential as people navigate these unprecedented times. This is especially true for seniors who could be experiencing increased loneliness, depression or battling medication addiction without their usual resources to lean on.
Recently, regulators have made moves to keep the telehealth expansions permanent, a development that was widely praised by doctors nationwide.
So, what’s next? How can telehealth access continue to improve? How do we ensure people without a computer, smartphone or broadband internet access can use the services? How can we continue to expand the telehealth offering as a safe way to connect with a healthcare provider to Medicare beneficiaries? How do we support those, especially seniors, who might have trouble with technology?
While telehealth is not meant to replace in-person care, it’s a step in the right direction to expand access to care. Here are three things that can be done to further amplify the evolution and availability of telehealth to support patients, especially seniors.
- Expand access to high-speed internet: During COVID-19, the world migrated online to communicate with family and friends, to continue to work, and to connect with healthcare providers. But, a recent paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 41% of surveyed Medicare beneficiaries lacked access to a desktop or laptop computer with a high-speed internet connection at home and 40% lacked a smartphone with a wireless data plan. Without digital access in the home, patients can face convenience barriers limiting connectivity with their provider. The technology gap, or the digital divide, disproportionally affects populations with limited resources and/or understanding of technology. Therefore, while broad adoption of telemedicine is needed, without a plan for equitable access across populations, there is an increased risk of widening health disparities across the country. There’s a vital need to find a solution to expand access to high-speed internet, to ensure that everyone has access to affordable and dependable broadband.
- Improve patient education (or awareness): Before the country declared a public health emergency, many Medicare beneficiaries didn’t know telehealth was an option or weren’t interested. All providers should help their patients understand which visits may require an in-person appointment versus a virtual one. Additionally, providers should help recommend which new problem or routine visits should be conducted virtually versus in-person. Virtually connecting with a healthcare professional is a faster, safer and more convenient way to receive healthcare. So, if payers continue to reimburse telemedicine beyond the public health emergency, now is the time to employ strategic communications to increase adoption and utilization.
- Eliminate state line medical license requirements: Doctors are required to be licensed in the state where they are practicing, and the same is true whether the medical provider connects with a patient in person or via telemedicine. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, this restriction of state-specific doctors was lifted as the healthcare industry was flooded, and telemedicine was the solution to see patients safely. To continue to see telemedicine adoption evolve and expand so it’s accessible to more patients, this state-line license restriction should be reconsidered.
The expansion of telemedicine services has allowed people across the country to access needed healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic and revealed that the healthcare industry continues to evolve in the mission to provide quality healthcare to all.
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