By Daniel Nissi and Matthew Newell

Unfortunately, it took the COVID-19 pandemic for telehealth to earn a long-overdue shot at the spotlight, thanks to its potential to help flatten the coronavirus curve. While its role is varied and as fluid as the evolving crisis environment itself, this might be what breaks the barriers to telemedicine’s broader adoption in the U.S.

Telehealth includes the expanse of remote clinical (telemedicine) and administrative services. By 2018, it was a $2 billion U.S. market1 but healthcare providers and patients have been slow to embrace it: One study2 found only 15% of physicians worked in practices that used telehealth. Uptake among patients, largely unfamiliar with the concept, ranges from 1% to 20%.3

As the coronavirus person-to-person spread has surged, and our healthcare systems have been overwhelmed in their efforts to respond, the need for different, safer options to deliver care has never been greater. It’s helping to topple the barriers to telehealth – for now, at least.

What’s been instrumental has been the loosening of state licensure requirements under which physicians had not been permitted to provide care to patients located at a site of care that’s in a different state than the one where the physician is licensed. By March 31, 2020, 49 states and the District of Columbia had waived those licensing requirements, at least for the duration of the crisis; the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and most private insurers said those waivers cleared the way for the reimbursement of telemedicine services conducted across state lines.

Especially in today’s circumstances, the advantages of telemedicine become obvious:

  • A screening and diagnostic alternative resource. Telemedicine provides access to care commensurate to the acuity and nature of the symptoms, bolstered by referrals when needed. It enables better control over an infection’s spread and allows patients to remain at home and less at risk. Some insurers are providing expanded telehealth services during this time for free virtual screenings for the virus. Contact your healthcare provider for their telemedicine requirements.
  • Relief for frontline workers. Telemedicine removes some of the exposure risk from doctors and nurses who are providing face-to-face care. Telehealth carts, for example, can be used in healthcare settings, not only to import care, but in isolation rooms as a way to limit healthcare workers’ exposure to the virus.
  • A resource for non-C-19 medical consultations. People with other health needs are being discouraged from getting them met face-to-face. Many hospital and healthcare systems are moving initial visits to telehealth, via video, where the clinical determination is made over what can be treated remotely and what can’t. It’s one way for those socially distancing to stay healthy and for medical professionals without a frontline role to play in the coronavirus battle to keep a working during the shutdown.
  • A way for senior care facilities to adapt to coronavirus pressures. Senior care has been a vector for outbreaks of the virus, and telemedicine can be one way to assure ongoing screenings as well as routine care can continue without further risking the health of residents, clinicians and senior care workers. Experts also note that social distancing is escalating anxiety, isolation and depression in this community, making behavioral health services, provided remotely, an ideal solution for the times.

Healthcare practitioners shouldn’t be overly worried about putting their malpractice coverage at risk by offering telemedicine services during the interim (or even longer term). They should be okay if their licensing lines up and they are not venturing into totally new practice areas with a different patient profile. Brokers can confirm this, depending on individual circumstances.

Telehealth has always held tremendous promise for the healthcare community and the people it serves. It’s taken an epic crisis to make that point and set the stage for the possibilities ahead.

HUB International’s team is ready to help your organization respond to the opportunities and risks in today’s changing healthcare environment.