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The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized telemedicine, causing a cultural shift in the medical space. This is not completely unexpected, as the number of direct-to-patients telemedicine visits were increasing even before the onset of the pandemic. However, the scale at which telemedicine has finally fully integrated itself in medical practices may surprise some.
According to a report issued by Forrester, the number of virtual care visits in 2020 will exceed 1 billion, 900 million of which will pertain directly to COVID-19. An Accenture survey reports that 60 percent of patients stated that based on their virtual tool use during the COVID-19 pandemic, they will want to use technology more in the future to connect with their medical providers and to manage their conditions.
And patients are not alone. Results from another survey show that 57 percent of providers consider telehealth more favorably than they did before the onset of COVID-19, and 64 percent are more comfortable using it.
Patients may have gravitated toward telemedicine during the pandemic out of necessity, but physicians who have not yet integrated some form of telehealth in their practices should be fully prepared for their patients to expect virtual care options even after vaccinations have been administered and the pandemic is under control. This means being prepared to help patients enjoy the practicability and accessibility of virtual care.
Federal Regulatory Changes Ease the Way for Telemedicine
The widescale adoption of telemedicine was assisted by the multiple waves of federal regulatory changes regarding telemedicine, mainly to address fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes, the first of which were issued on March 17th of this year by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), centered on expanding the access of telemedicine, lessening restrictions on who can be treated and where and improving the reimbursement for telemedicine services for Medicare recipients. Many of the federal regulatory changes have already become permanent.
There have been changes at the state level as well. Some states have made their mandates permanent. For example, New Hampshire now requires private payer reimbursements for telemedicine services are equal to those for in-person services. Ohio has added to the list of health professionals who are allowed to use telemedicine.
Because of the regulatory changes regarding telemedicine, providers have been afforded the flexibility to help ensure that their patients are able to receive the care they need. Telemedicine has not only become a much needed central link between physicians, patients and health systems at a time when it is necessary to limit contact to curtail the spread of COVID-19, but has also had a critical role in providing revenue for medical providers during a time when the majority of elective procedures and treatments have been put on hold.
Now that telemedicine has solidified its footing in the landscape of medical care, what can be expected after the COVID-19 pandemic ends?
Telemedicine Will Be a Standard Part of Medical Practice Care
There are aspects of every medical practice within every medical specialty that cannot be done via telehealth. For example, in-person visits will always be required for surgeries, broken limbs, certain treatments, etc. However, there are, arguably, aspects of every practice that can be done via telemedicine. Virtual care can be used for wellness visits, obtaining prescription, nutrition counseling, providing medical advice about non-urgent illnesses, mental health counseling and more. After a patient is discharged from the hospital, telehealth visits during it is can be useful in improving patient outcomes by confirming patients were able to safely transition back home and are taking the appropriate medications. Providers will realize the true value of telemedicine when they understand how it is able to improve the efficiencies of medical care and can be a part of their long-term strategy for their practice.
The Reimbursement Struggle from Private Payors Will Continue
Before the onset of the pandemic, physicians were typically not compensated for telemedicine visits at the same level they would be for in-office visits. Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine services was very restricted, applicable only to limited cases, and for those limited cases, the telemedicine reimbursement was typically much lower than that for in-office visits or was denied.
In March 2020, Medicare waived nearly all of their restrictions regarding telemedicine and expanded coverage. Even more importantly, Medicare began making reimbursements at the same rates for in-office and virtual visits. Medicaid is doing the same in many cases.
Private insurers are a different story. Coverage and reimbursement of telemedicine is still far from uniform between payors. While several state governors have used mandates to require private insurers to increase telemedicine coverage, the end of the public health emergency will signal the end of many of the mandates. When they are not mandated by the state, private insurers get to choose which telehealth services will be included in plan coverage. Some insurers, such as Humana, Aetna and Cigna, have only temporarily waived deductibles, copays and coinsurance for all virtual visits. Other insurers will only waive cost sharing if an in-network provider is used or if the virtual visit pertains only to COVID-19 care.
While the pandemic is far from being over, there is an ending in sight and we have to consider what comes after. There can no “return to normal” in the post-COVID-19 world when it comes to receiving or providing medical care. Whenever applicable, telemedicine should be a standard part of medical care.
As the expansion of telehealth continues to change the expectations and attitudes regarding telehealth, providers should operate on the assumption that telehealth should be permanent part of their medical practices.
Published on Mar 9, 2021
<p>Whenever applicable, telemedicine should be a standard part of medical care. </p><p>As the expansion of telehealth continues to change the expectations and attitudes regarding telehealth, providers should operate on the assumption that telehealth should be permanent part of their medical practices.</p>