What Does Telehealth's Future Look Like?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual visits and other telehealth modalities expanded significantly to compensate for the lack of in-person healthcare services. Telehealth served a vital role during this time but not without pros and cons. Socioeconomic limitations, reimbursement rates, and security and compliance challenges remain concerns. Now that the pandemic has reached the one-year mark with vaccinations underway, we are curious about telehealth’s future. A recent sit-down with Mike Murphy, Director of Business and Industry Analytics at Forward Advantage provided some valuable insight on this topic that affects many of our customers. We hope this information is helpful as you plan for the coming months. As always, feel free to share your own experiences with telehealth and thoughts on its future.
Q: What do you anticipate for telehealth with COVID becoming more controlled and in-person healthcare resuming?
A: Telehealth’s trend is likely to subside for certain specialties requiring direct observation for diagnosis and treatment, such as oncology, rheumatology, and dermatology. Automated screening, triage and routine care use cases will continue to move beyond simple urgent care and prescription refills that used to characterize telehealth. Virtualization will continue, but the pace of growth is likely to level off and evolve to a more balanced hybrid model of digital and in-person healthcare.
Q: What are your thoughts on telehealth reimbursement and its effect on demand?
A: There is a lingering concern about reimbursement because telehealth services are compensated at a lower rate than in-person services. Healthcare systems have also invested large sums of money in physical facilities and equipment, along with associated loans and mortgages, which cannot be sustained without a return to in-person encounters.
Q: What are the key benefits and issues associated with telehealth?
A: The rapid expansion of telehealth during this period revealed numerous benefits but also exposed some major gaps and risks. Benefits include ongoing management of patient health conditions and continued access to healthcare services for patients. However, coordination of care may suffer because of multiple providers interacting with patients without the capability to share their encounter notes and other documentation. Security and compliance also remain concerns, because some telehealth services use consumer-grade technologies that do not include the security features of hardened healthcare systems.
Q: What are your thoughts on HIPAA and security as telehealth is evaluated for the future?
A: The HHS temporarily allowed healthcare providers to use any popular applications that allow for video chats to provide telehealth services without OCR imposing a penalty for HIPAA non-compliance. The relaxed standards for telehealth-related data exchanges have opened more opportunities for bad actors to exploit the pandemic for financial gain. Phishing attempts have also grown, and the recent dependence on virtual visits makes users more susceptible to falling victim to phishing.
Before COVID-19, Medicare reimbursements for virtual services were linked to a tight set of circumstances, but the HHS used its waiver authority to permit CMS to expand the permissible range of virtual services that qualify for federal reimbursement. The shifting landscape and an intricate network of federal and state regulations make legal compliance tricky for telehealth providers going forward. The HHS is expected to rescind this authority after the pandemic, which will reduce the number of telehealth vendors and options available. It will also start rigorously enforcing HIPAA compliance again.
Q: What needs to be done to ensure telehealth's successful use in the future?
A: Looking forward, emphasis will be placed on enhancing the patient experience when using telehealth services. Tighter integration with patient health records will be a priority to facilitate continuity of care and improve providers’ ability to directly document encounters. Deployment of branded mobile apps will increase to create a stronger foundation for provider/patient relationships and ensure a seamless experience for patients - from scheduling, to access, to communication, record sharing and payment. I also see connected devices becoming more common, allowing physicians to collect real-time data from patients to better monitor their health status.
We hope you find these predictions for telehealth helpful. Healthcare is a rapidly changing climate, and this technology has been invaluable during a time when in-person visits were either not recommended or not possible. As always, we are interested in hearing your take on this topic. Will your organization continue to invest in telehealth? Do you see a need for improvements not mentioned in this blog? We welcome your feedback!
CMS Telehealth Guidance
CMS List of payable Telehealth Services
HHS Telehealth Guidance on Expansion of Telehealth Services and Waivers