Telehealth: Reimagining Care for Susceptible Communities (Part One)

Telehealth is a cost-effective, convenient alternative to the traditional face-to-face practice of medical care and services. It allows providers to deliver care to a patient when they need it, where they need it, and with less disruption to the patient’s life. Although not a new concept, telehealth has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerated by the federal government’s $200 million in funding via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has added over 250 services to the list of telehealth services that Medicare Fee-for-Service will cover.

In the first of this three-part blog series, we will investigate the rapidly expanding market for telehealth services and begin to uncover how this trend might impact the quality of care patients receive. We will also consider whether telehealth is here to stay post-pandemic.

Since March alone, more than 40 states have amended existing telehealth and telemedicine regulations or passed new guidelines to expand services or coverage and better regulate the delivery of these services. According to CMS, over 34.5 million telehealth services were delivered to Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries between March and June of this year, which is an increase of more than 2,600 percent over the same period last year.

The swift adoption of telehealth services across the country has opened the door for multi-state healthcare networks, direct-to-consumer telehealth companies, and specialty consults to expand care to the states’ rural populations. Some states – including Florida, Georgia, and Missouri – have given healthcare providers in other states permission to treat their residents, so long as the providers meet applicable state telehealth laws. Georgia is also promoting wider telehealth adoption by offering patients a free web-based app that provides telemedicine screening for COVID-19 by a medical clinician via video call or phone call.

Telehealth has proven to be an effective strategy for rural health development. Throughout the country, small hospitals, clinics, and public health agencies are joining forces with larger health systems to form connected health programs via telehealth that reach remote and rural communities. Rural populations, which tend to be older, poorer, and more at-risk for chronic illness than their urban counterparts, make rural health critically important to a state’s overall health. Telemedicine makes treatment more affordable and more accessible for rural patients. It allows them to schedule appointments with specialists in a timelier fashion and reduces secondary costs like gasoline, childcare, and time off from work or school that would be required for an in-person visit. Further, connecting rural regions with larger healthcare systems through telehealth can facilitate the delivery of preventative services and enable lifestyle interventions that improve overall health outcomes.

As with rural communities, telehealth increases care accessibility for older populations. For example, for patients residing in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, obtaining treatment via telehealth eliminates the need to commute to doctors’ offices, an activity that is not always easy for this group. It also promotes social distancing that reduces exposure to illness and the spread of infection in these high-risk populations.

Prior to the pandemic, just a fraction of hospitals had adopted telemedicine, and healthcare providers were not eager to upend their standard model for care delivery. The story today is very different. In recent months, telehealth has effectively reduced direct physical contact between patients and providers and helped clear hospital beds to make room for patients most in need. In a short amount of time, telehealth has quickly become an integral part of the healthcare model, offering an affordable, convenient, and safe solution for continued care for a wide variety of patients during times of crisis.

As state and local governments continue to receive federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) dollars to address the ongoing public health emergency, they must establish a structured approach for distributing and managing the funding and overseeing resulting projects, benefits, and contracts. And, as telehealth adoption rises, states must consider where it fits in the budget, now and in the future.

North Highland serves as a strategic partner for states seeking to make the most of the federal funding provided to them during this critical time. For the State of Florida, for example, our team helped design, implement, and oversee programs that maximized the value of federal funds to ignite Florida’s economy, bolster public confidence, and keep the state healthy.

In the next installment of this series, we'll dive into the impact of telehealth on the quality of patient care.