Telemedicine Can Finally Go Mainstream Pushed By Coronavirus Outbreak

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world into a state of chaos. Healthcare organizations all across the globe are grappling under tremendous pressure. The healthcare industry in the US is staggering under the burden of more than 1,367,638 coronavirus cases, the maximum any country has reported so far.

Amidst the coronavirus crisis, millions of Americans are seeking to move towards telemedicine and seeking virtual consultations with their doctors.

Health organizations, physician groups and insurers alike are recommending telemedicine to allow people to practice social distancing while seeking health consultations.

Telemedicine is also playing a huge role in protecting healthcare workers, managing the increased load on healthcare facilities and preventing clogging up of emergency rooms from concerned patients.

COVID-19: The Biggest Challenge for The US Healthcare System

Flattening the curve and limiting the spread of infection is the biggest task in front of our healthcare system right now.

Rachael Britt-McGraw, the CIO of Tennessee Orthopaedic Alliance says, The US healthcare system and our healthcare workers are truly amazing – the best in the world. They can handle surprising things.  The problem is going to be ventilators and other such equipment needed for critical cases – most of which has not been kept in high supply within each hospital as there is not normally a need for so many at one time. 

That is why it is SO important to flatten the curve – so that there will be enough ventilators available at any given time to meet the demand and save lives.”

Dr. Teja Surapaneni of the United Medical Group stresses on risk-based stratification of the patients. “Currently the U.S healthcare system is underprepared for any level of surge in critical care patients. We face an uphill battle to overcome COVID-19 by carefully risk stratifying to see who will need hospitalizations.” he says. 

The Role of Telemedicine in Combating The Coronavirus Pandemic

Nancy Messonnier, director at the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases has called telehealth “part of a larger strategy to fight the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.” She has called on American hospitals to expand their use of telehealth services to help keep relatively healthy people out of doctor’s offices and hospitals.

The American Telemedicine Association is also advocating the use of telemedicine in managing the coronavirus pandemic. While all healthcare providers may not be able to give confirmed coronavirus diagnosis during a telehealth visit, they can raise the awareness levels by giving  self-care and quarantine tips, educating patients about when they need to go to a hospital, and if they do, helping in coordinating appointment scheduling and testing.

Dr Surapaneni, who has been a pioneer in developing their native platform YourMD.online has long believed in reshaping healthcare in the US for the purpose of affordability access and timely medical care. “Telemedicine has the ability to intervene immediately by triaging patients anywhere in the country, and guiding them with appropriate treatments and testing recommendations.

Telemedicine behaves as the gatekeeper to screen patients and direct traffic without having to worry about safety of providers, staffing or overhead necessary to sustain a brick and mortar operation.”

Dr Robin Glass, the president at Doctor on Demand, a leading telehealth application attributes the growth of telemedicine to the changing policies. He says, “We’re seeing the capacity of the US healthcare infrastructure being strained in unprecedented ways.

This is the first time we are seeing government officials, providers, health plans and employers recommend telehealth as the first choice for care, as opposed to an alternative” 

Reducing The Burden on The Healthcare System

Telemedicine can deliver virtual care in non-emergent cases, letting the care teams to focus on the critical cases and lessening the load.

The goal is to keep people with symptoms at home and to practice social distancing if their condition doesn’t warrant more intensive hospital care. Almost 80% of hospitals in the U.S. have some sort of telehealth service.

We are currently witnessing an increase in the number of patients experiencing anxiety thinking they may be suffering from coronavirus. Telemedicine can help alleviate their concerns and prevent them from flocking in the hospitals.

“75 percent of all calls at Cleveland Clinic’s Express Care online system are from people who are worried that they have COVID-19”, says Dr. Matthew Faiman, the medical director at the facility.

“We are seeing a significant upsurge in demand from patients seeking care ― both the worried ones and patients who are sick and wanting to know how to manage their symptoms,” Faiman said.

The screening of patients at a preliminary level and reduction in burden on the existing healthcare facilities is one of the major contributions of telemedicine in fighting the coronavirus crisis.

Also Read: 5 Best Telemedicine Apps of 2020

Telemedicine in Screening And Diagnosis of COVID-19

Telemedicine can not only successfully keep patients from overcrowding the hospitals but the technology can also help screen and diagnose the patients and combat misinformation while treating them.

Platforms such as Doctor on Demand and HeyDoctor are offering free coronavirus risk assessments to all their users. If a high-risk patient is identified during the screening, they are further directed to consult with a doctor over phone or through video conferencing.

A few telehealth apps like PlushCare and Everlywell are looking at offering at-home Covid-19 tests. The services would require patients to take samples at home, mail them to a lab, and speak to a doctor over the phone.

Hospitals essentially can rely on telemedicine to be the first point of contact and let their professionals guide their moderate to high risk patients seek urgent or emergent services in the appropriate manner designed to protect themselves and the public.” said Dr. Surapaneni, who believes telemedicine is crucial for managing the current coronavirus crisis.

“In current times we are making sure patients who are symptomatic and need hospital services still go through home isolation, and alerting local health departments, ER, Urgent Care services to prepare their medical personnel to anticipate a potential patient with specific clinical needs,” he adds.

“It’s much better to triage people remotely so you can only send the cases with complications to the hospital,” said Allon Bloch, the CEO of K Health, which provides a symptom-checking service. “This way you can avoid a ‘run on the bank,’ where everyone wants to see a doctor.”

Dr. Peter Antall, President and Chief Medical officer for American Well believes that telehealth is the perfect venue for combating the coronavirus pandemic. “We can increase access to care. We can offer care that is commensurate with the acuity and nature of the symptoms and make referrals as needed. This helps with infection prevention and control and also allows patients to receive their care in the home without exposing themselves to further illness.”

Contributing Factors to The Recent Surge in Telemedicine Adoption

On March 6, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act was signed into law, which among other things gives the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the authority to temporarily waive certain Medicare requirements for telehealth services.

If a Medicare beneficiary is looking for advice, they can call their doctor and receive medical direction on whether they should come into the office for an exam,” explained CMS Administrator Seema Verma during an AARP town hall last week.

The Trump administration and public-health officials are urging consumers to use telehealth services to get remote treatment, fill prescriptions and get medical attention during the new coronavirus pandemic, and companies that offer virtual appointments are reporting a surge in demand.

The administration has also streamlined the payment of telemedicine consultations for the healthcare providers. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on March 30, earmarks the funds for the Federal Communications Commission to help healthcare providers offering telehealth.

Government and private insurers have also increased the payment for telemedicine visits so they are on par with in-person visits. Before the outbreak, insurers paid less than half that amount, which dissuaded many doctors from offering them.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the restrictions imposed on healthcare practitioners for catering to patients in different geographical areas have been diluted. The federal government has announced that doctors can now practice across state lines during the pandemic to treat Medicare patients virtually, even if not licensed in the patient’s state.

At a press conference on March 17, CMS announced that Medicare will now cover telemedicine for routine follow-up visits as well — so if you need to check in with your doctor for a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes, for example, you’ll be able to do it via Skype instead of going in for an in-person visit.

Medicare also allows all enrollees to use telemedicine — an option that previously was available only to people living in remote areas and for a specific, short checkup.

But, What About Security?

Patient privacy and data security are the two major concerns plaguing the healthcare industry at large. The government has waived off federal law for protection of patient privacy if the providers are operating in good faith however relying on commercial video conferencing platforms like Skype or Zoom may put patient data at greater risk.

The recent data security lapses uncovered in Zoom can easily pave the way for future lawsuits and thousands of dollars in legal fees if patient data security is not given due consideration.

Rather than relying on commercial video conferencing platforms, developing a telemedicine application for your practice is going to be much more secure. Integration of features like end-to-end data encryption, compliance to HIPAA standards when storing and sharing data on the cloud and adherence to stringent security measures makes custom developed telemedicine platforms the ideal choice.

What the future holds

The coronavirus pandemic may be the event that finally propels telemedicine into the mainstream.

Dr. Manish Naik, Chief medical information technology officer at Austin regional clinic predicts once people get used to availing healthcare services from the comfort of their own homes, it will be hard to go back now.

“Telemedicine has been on the brink for a while now,” Naik said. “And doctors and patients are going to find that when this is all over and the dust settles there are a lot of people who are going to want the telemedicine option to stay.”

Rachael Britt-McGraw, Chief Information Officer at Tennessee Orthopaedic Alliance believes that telemedicine shall continue to be catapulted forward in the future too. She says, “Telemedicine has moved to the top of the list and we have doctors actually seeing patients every day using this. The fact that the insurance companies changed their rules so that a telemedicine encounter is equally valuable from an amount allowed to be charged standpoint will allow rapid and permanent adoption of this very efficient and cost effective method of care delivery.”

There is an increased number of patients who are opting for telemedicine and this trend is going to continue in the future too. “Many of the patients we polled prefer this method of care delivery to having to drive in and wait in a waiting room. It’s not going away after COVID-19.“ Britt-McGraw said. 

We are still in our infancy, every technology requires consumer adoption, regulatory framework, technology infrastructure, leadership and buy in from stakeholders.” says Dr. Surapaneni of the United Medical Group.

Telemedicine must become global and broaden its offerings by tackling remote patient monitoring, transitional care, specialty consults, intertwine with people’s daily lives, reinforce preventive care and adapt newer technology into their solutions. Telemedicine must be laser focused on improving community health by engaging physicians, local leaders and healthcare technology companies.”

The surge in adoption of telehealth and telemedicine we  are currently witnessing is the light at the end of the tunnel we need to navigate through the challenging times.

Vinati Kamani
 

Dr Vinati Kamani writes about emerging technology and its application across industries for Arkenea. She is an avid reader and self proclaimed bibliophile. When Vinati is not at her desk penning down articles or reading up on the recent trends, she can be found travelling to remote places and soaking up different cultural experiences.