Telehealth Seen as a Key Tool to Help Fight COVID-19

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MARCH 05, 2020 -- Telehealth is increasingly being viewed as a key way to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Recognizing the potential of this technology to slow the spread of the disease, the House of Representatives included a provision in an $8.3 billion emergency response bill it approved today that would temporarily lift restrictions on Medicare telehealth coverage to assist in the efforts to contain the virus.

Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that hospitals should be prepared to use telehealth as one of their tools in fighting the outbreak, according to a recent news release from the American Hospital Association (AHA).

Congress is responding to that need by including the service in the new coronavirus legislation now headed to the Senate, after the funding bill was approved in a 415-2 vote by the House.

The bill empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to "waive or modify application of certain Medicare requirements with respect to telehealth services furnished during certain emergency periods."

While the measure adds telehealth to the waiver authority that the HHS secretary currently has during national emergencies, it's only for the coronavirus crisis in this case, Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, told Medscape Medical News.

The waiver would apply to originating sites of telehealth visits, she noted. Thus Medicare coverage of telemedicine would be expanded beyond rural areas.

In addition, the waiver would allow coverage of virtual visits conducted on smartphones with audio and video capabilities. A "qualified provider," as defined by the legislation, would be a practitioner who has an established relationship with the patient or who is in the same practice as the provider who has that relationship.

An advantage of telehealth, proponents say, is that it can enable people who believe they have COVID-19 to be seen at home rather than visit offices or emergency departments (EDs) where they might spread the disease or be in proximity to others who have it.

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In an editorial published March 2 in Modern Healthcare, medical directors from Stanford Medicine, MedStar Health, and Intermountain Healthcare also noted that telehealth can give patients 24/7 access to care, allow surveillance of patients at risk while keeping them at home, ensure that treatment in hospitals is reserved for high-need patients, and enable providers to triage and screen more patients than can be handled in brick-and-mortar care settings.

However, telehealth screening would allow physicians only to judge whether a patient's symptoms might be indicative of COVID-19, the Alliance for Connected Care, a telehealth advocacy group, noted in a letter to Congressional leaders. Patients would still have to be seen in person to be tested for the disease.

The group, which represents technology companies, health insurers, pharmacies, and other healthcare players, has been lobbying Congress to include telehealth in federal funds to combat the outbreak.

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) also supports this goal, ATA President Joseph Kvedar, MD, told Medscape Medical News. And the authors of the Modern Healthcare editorial also advocated for this legislative solution. Because the fatality rate for COVID-19 is significantly higher for older people than for other age groups, they noted, telehealth should be an economically viable option for all seniors.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) long covered telemedicine only in rural areas and only when initiated in healthcare settings. Recently, however, CMS loosened its approach to some extent. Virtual "check-in visits" can now be initiated from any location, including home, to determine whether a Medicare patient needs to be seen in the office. In addition, CMS allows Medicare Advantage plans to offer telemedicine as a core benefit.

Are Healthcare Systems Prepared?

Some large healthcare systems such as Stanford, MedStar, and Intermountain are already using telehealth to diagnose and treat patients who have traditional influenza. Telehealth providers at Stanford estimate that almost 50% of these patients are being prescribed the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

It's unclear whether other healthcare systems are this well prepared to offer telehealth on a large scale. But, according to an AHA survey, Kvedar noted, three quarters of AHA members are engaged in some form of telehealth.

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Drobac said "it wouldn't require too much effort" to ramp up a wide-scale telehealth program that could help reduce the impact of the outbreak. "The technology is there," she noted. "You need a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform, but there are so many out there."

Kvedar agreed. To begin with, he said, hospitals might sequester patients who visit the ED with COVID-19 symptoms in a video-equipped "isolation room." Staff members could then do the patient intake from a different location in the hospital.

He admitted that this approach would be infeasible if a lot of patients arrived in EDs with coronavirus symptoms. However, Kvedar noted, "All the tools are in place to go well beyond that. American Well, Teladoc, and others are all offering ways to get out in front of this. There are plenty of vendors out there, and most people have a connected cell phone that you can do a video call on."

Hospital leaders would have to decide whether to embrace telehealth, which would mean less use of services in their institutions, he said. "But it would be for the greater good of the public."

Kvedar recalled that there was some use of telehealth in the New York area after 9/11. Telehealth was also used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the ATA president, who is also vice president of connected health at Partners HealthCare in Boston, noted that the COVID-19 outbreak is the first public health emergency to occur in the era of Skype and smartphones.

If Congress does ultimately authorize CMS to cover telehealth across the board during this emergency, might that lead to a permanent change in Medicare coverage policy? Kvedar wouldn't venture an opinion. "However, the current CMS leadership has been incredibly telehealth friendly," he said. "So it's possible they would [embrace a lifting of restrictions]. As patients get a sense of this modality of care and how convenient it is for them, they'll start asking for more."

Meanwhile, he said, the telehealth opportunity goes beyond video visits with doctors to mitigate the outbreak. Telehealth data could also be used to track disease spread, similar to how researchers have studied Google searches to predict the spread of the flu, he noted.

Teladoc, a major telehealth vendor, recently told stock analysts it's already working with the CDC on disease surveillance, according to a report in FierceHealthcare.

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