With so much available online, it’s no surprise healthcare has joined the digital ranks in the form of telemed, or telemedicine.
So, how does telemedicine work? It allows healthcare providers to conduct appointments with patients using telecommunications technology, such as video or online chat functionalities. This approach is useful for follow-ups, ongoing management of a known health issue, consultations that may not require an in-person visit each time, or for patients who live in more remote locations and may have difficulty traveling for appointments.
But before we get too far into this topic, it’s important to be clear that telemed, while playing an arguably significant role in expanding options for patients outside of their regular appointment schedules, should not be seen as a replacement for necessary in-person care. As advanced as digital technology has become, in many situations there is no substitute for an office visit with a healthcare provider.
That being said, the novel circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrust telemed into the spotlight as patients and providers alike struggle with the safety of paying a routine visit to healthcare offices.
Telemedicine was already playing a large role in healthcare prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but since the spread of the virus has resulted in unprecedented demand on healthcare professionals around the world, the option has skyrocketed in popularity.
COVID-19 has created multiple scenarios in which telemed technology can play a key role, including:
There are notable telemedicine benefits for healthcare providers as well. Doctors can reduce the number of exposures they have overall by moving certain appointments to a telemed format. They can also continue working from a remote location outside of their normal office space if needed.
Perhaps most importantly, however, they can conduct patient screenings for COVID-19 remotely, and make determinations about care prior to seeing patients in person, which also allows for better preparation and protection.
Dr. Meetah Shah, an emergency room physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, recently told the New York Times that the Coronavirus outbreak is “...kind of a turning point for virtual health.”
Of course, the usefulness of telemedicine during a pandemic is quite different from how it’s used during normal circumstances. COVID-19 is certainly keeping individuals home who would otherwise be willing and able to visit their healthcare provider; however, the option for telemed can be seen as a breath of fresh air during this uncertain time.
There are a host of telemedicine apps, many of which fall under the category of telehealth, which acts as a subset of telemedicine. While inclusive of live video or phone appointments, telehealth also consists of mobile or web applications provided by healthcare organizations to keep patients keyed into their own care online.
Telehealth apps may include, for example, an online portal where patients can receive messages from their provider, view recent test results, receive appointment reminders, view resources relevant to their care, or send a message or chat with their provider about a specific question or concern.
Other telehealth applications include:
There’s no question these new, digital means of communication between patients and their healthcare providers are changing the more traditional view of medical care. But we’re learning quickly that, pandemic or not, the telemedicine benefits of convenience, information, and accessibility have increased by allowing certain forms of healthcare to be practiced online.
Coverage for telemedicine is largely at the mercy of state and federal governments, and private insurance companies:
Due to the somewhat complicated nature of insurance coverage in regards to telemedicine, the best practice is for all patients to contact their health insurance provider to clarify any kind of coverage on an individual, case-by-case basis.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was first enacted in 1996, long before digital technology introduced not only remote healthcare services but security issues with sharing health information over digital platforms.
Compliance with HIPAA is crucial for healthcare providers, and as telemed technology increases in popularity, there are more resources in place to meet the demands of digital technology in the healthcare space.
ADK has spent the past 10 years building HIPAA-compliant mobile apps, doctor-facing dashboards, and websites for leading health organizations like Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, as well as companies at the forefront of virtual care like the aforementioned Firefly Health.
The key to understanding your HIPAA compliance requirements is understanding what type of functionality your organization’s telemed technology is going to have. Anything that will be storing, tracking, or collecting information that would be considered Protected Health Information (PHI) under which HIPAA must comply. Additionally, HIPAA compliance is required for any exchange of information or interaction with entities covered by insurance policies, such as doctor’s offices or healthcare providers.
There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic is calling more attention to the value of telemed technology. For example, Medicare is enabling patients, doctors, and other healthcare providers to take advantage of telemedicine during this time.
While testing for COVID-19 is not yet possible via telemed technology, it is serving as a valuable tool to keep healthcare providers and patients safer. Being able to make pre-determinations about patient visits or speak with a patient about their symptoms before they come in allows doctors to take greater precautions and make smart choices about appointments.
Once things have calmed down and daily operations return to a more normal cadence, telemed will remain an important method of healthcare into the future, and will likely evolve to become even more accessible and dynamic for patients.
With that said, we see several ways telemedicine could expand going forward:
COVID-19 is showing us the value of telemedicine, but that value won’t go away with the flattening of the curve. Therefore, patients, doctors, and other healthcare providers should consider telemed technology an important element of healthcare now and into the future, and health organizations who are not currently taking advantage of digital technology to connect with their patients should consider doing so immediately.
Especially during a pandemic, but no less so during calmer times, patients are coming to expect more accessible and more personalized care, and an office visit is no longer the only way to deliver on that expectation.
If your healthcare organization is interested in leveraging tested and proven technology to improve your experience, you need to work with an agency with years of experience in telemedicine development for prominent healthcare organizations. Contact us today.