Thanks to the invention of technology, telemedicine is becoming mainstream. If you think that invention is video conferencing, you’re wrong. Would you believe it’s radio?
Back in 1924, the cover of Radio News featured an image of a physician who could see and be seen by patients. At that time, telemedicine sounded like science fiction. Thanks to cloud technology, video conferencing, and other technological advances, telemedicine is now a viable reality.
While telemedicine has been discussed for decades and its use has been steadily increasing over the years; it took a public health crisis to ignite the conversation. The CDC reports a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020.
However, one downside to the adoption of telehealth is the unfair reimbursement for these services. You can read the details about these reimbursement issues in this blog post we wrote earlier this year.
Here, we’ll look at the broad uses of telemedicine and legislation about telehealth currently being discussed in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Telemedicine vs. Telehealth
Telemedicine is the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance. It refers specifically to remote clinical services. Telehealth has a broader meaning and includes remote non-clinical services.
Most people use the terms interchangeably to mean a patient in one location and a healthcare provider in another location.
Benefits of Telemedicine
The advantages of telemedicine for both patients and healthcare providers include:
- Reduced cost of care
- Faster diagnosis and treatment in instances of critical care
- Improved access to care, especially in rural areas and for lower-income families
- Higher patient satisfaction
- Reduced readmission rates
- Improved follow-up care
Some of these patient benefits are obvious. If a person isn’t feeling well, it’s much better to talk to a healthcare provider from the comforts of their home. And, patients report feeling less stressed, which could give the healthcare provider a more honest assessment of the patient’s health. It’s a time-saving convenience for both patient and provider.
At first glance, telemedicine is the perfect answer to some of the healthcare inequity problems in rural America.
Telemedicine in Rural America
How do you get to the doctor if you do not have a car and live where there is no mass transit? What happens if you need a specialist and the nearest one is 90 miles away? These are just two of the dilemmas those living in rural areas face.
Many rural areas don’t have enough providers, which adds to the appeal of telehealth.
Unfortunately, some rural areas don’t have robust internet connections. Another stumbling block for those interested in bringing telemedicine to remote cities and towns is the Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement regulations.
Legislation to Protect Telehealth
Last year the Trump Administration waived many existing restrictions on telehealth for Medicare recipients. That was a temporary measure put in place during the height of the pandemic.
At the end of January, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to expand access to telehealth beyond the pandemic. According to Healthcare IT News, the four main points of this bill include:
- Eliminate most geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare and establishing the patient’s home as an eligible distant site.
- Authorize the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service to continue reimbursement for telehealth for 90 days beyond the end of the public health emergency.
- Make permanent the disaster waiver authority, enabling Health and Human Service to expand telehealth in Medicare during all future emergencies and disasters.
- Require a study on the use of telehealth during COVID, including its costs, uptake rates, measurable health outcomes, and racial and geographic disparities.
That first point, regarding the geographic and originating site restrictions, would help those living in rural areas of the country.
Telehealth Reimbursement Issues
This bill received praise from those concerned that Medicare reimbursement regulations create a barrier for some individuals
Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, told Healthcare IT News,” For decades, the Medicare statute has severely limited telehealth services, while other payers increasingly relied on telehealth to provide care to patients when and where they need it. This disparity has become shockingly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person care has not been an option for most patients.”
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