A familiar echo of “we should have done this earlier” surrounds processes that could have been implemented before the pandemic hit. Telehealth is a prime example. The American Telemedicine Association is taking advantage of its success during the crisis to make telehealth a permanent fixture in U.S. healthcare.
House calls seem like a quaint relic from a more halcyon time, but now they’re back—in the form of telehealth. The dramatic rise in the use of telehealth sprang from necessity brought on by the healthcare needs—and restrictions—caused by the coronavirus. The American Medical Association estimates that 60 to 90 percent of physicians are using some sort of telehealth services—nearly half for the first time.
“Telehealth as an industry stepped into the breach when there was no other alternative,” said Kyle Zebley, the American Telemedicine Association’s director of public policy. Federal, state, and local authorities ordered millions of Americans to stay home during the pandemic, making telehealth the best way for patients to safely access care in their own homes when they needed it most.
The national public health emergency period is set to end on October 22, and ATA is focused on making sure many of the flexibilities related to telehealth that have come about during the past several months because of COVID-19 become permanent. This includes ensuring that reimbursement from Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance continues and that there is coverage parity for telehealth.
Telehealth had low utilization rates before the pandemic largely because of regulatory barriers and ineffective reimbursement, Zebley said, and now “the industry is doing what it said it could do—and what the technology was capable of—for years.” Millions of Americans got their first taste of telehealth this year and responded positively to the care they received, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any going back,” said Zebley. “Telehealth is a logical extension of healthcare into the 21st century.”
Telehealth allows Americans to receive healthcare where and when they need it. For some Americans in rural areas, the drive to a doctor’s office can mean many hours on the road. “Doctors and healthcare providers will tell you for so many settings, telehealth works just as well as an in-person visit, but without all the time and the hassle,” he said.
There is currently a shortage of physicians in the country and telehealth provides an efficient and effective way for more healthcare providers to provide access to care to an increasing number of patients. ATA is working to “seal in the gains made in the past few months” so the healthcare industry can continue to maximize the benefits of telehealth as a value-based tool, Zebley said.
He cites significant cost savings and bipartisan support for telehealth in Congress and the administration, saying these advantages will align with the move from a fee-for-service model to a value-based payment model in U.S. healthcare.
“This unique moment in time has really heightened the visibility of the industry and ATA as an association—on the Hill and in state capitals,” Zebley said.