Please note that this article is an opinion piece. While it has been fact-checked, vetted, and approved by MedBridge, it reflects the current viewpoints of its authors.
More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, states are continuing to respond to the many challenges presented: Working to ensure there is sufficient hospital capacity for patients, protective equipment for healthcare workers, money in the hands of the unemployed, and food in the mouths of those who are hungry. Yet even as states enact these solutions, many leaders consider them temporary and expect to return to the status quo after the pandemic subsides.
For one major area of healthcare, however, today’s solutions might just last for a long time. When it comes to healthcare delivery, the pandemic is forcing state and health leaders to consider alternative methods—such as telehealth—that could fundamentally change how patients access healthcare in the future.
Improving Access to Essential Care
Before the pandemic, telehealth had already begun to replace office visits to primary care physicians and certain specialists. Now it’s also being used for rehabilitative care, where it could continue to be a disruptor long after the pandemic.
This would be a good thing.
Telehealth allows healthcare providers to better meet the increasing need for rehabilitation due to the pandemic—and in general. It also serves as a paradigm case for how healthcare can and should adapt to meet economic, social, and technological needs.
Because of the immediate and urgent need brought about by the pandemic, the federal government has loosened regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA and other privacy protection measures, so that patients can access clinicians through consumer video conferencing platforms like Skype and FaceTime.
While these relaxed privacy measures pose obvious risks to patients, they have helped to dramatically increase the number of patients and providers who are comfortable receiving and providing conventional clinical care via telehealth. And fortunately, they’ve also helped to accelerate the proliferation of telehealth solutions that are HIPAA-compliant, ensuring that providers who are now more comfortable with providing care virtually no longer have to sacrifice patient privacy for ease of access.
Effective, On-Point Technology
Internet and computer technology have developed to the point that many therapies that previously required face-to-face interaction no longer do so. For example, speech and language pathologists can interact with patients in real time using video and audio from smartphones, tablets, laptops, or computers. These interactions have been found to be just as effective as in-person sessions.
Physical and occupational therapists have also used telemedicine for education, consultation, and other services that do not require actual hands-on interventions. Patients and family members also appreciate that they no longer need to travel or wait for clinicians before being seen and have the ability to work on therapeutic techniques in the comfort of their personal environments.
Expanding Reach for the Greater Good
Telehealth has benefited from the recent easing of restrictions and from the improvement of technology and devices, but states can and should do more for the future. For example, while states have suspended border restrictions for telehealth due to the pandemic, the suspension is temporary, like all other responses so far. But it shouldn’t be. Public officials and health leaders need to find ways to maintain increased and flexible access to telehealth even after the pandemic, especially in the area of therapies and rehabilitation, while still complying with HIPAA laws and other patient privacy measures.
Given the increasing demand for therapeutic services and the ease with which technology can allow connection across vast distances, states should reevaluate the need for individual licensure requirements. Having a standard licensure across states, or at least having the means for license recognition reciprocity between different states, would allow rehabilitation therapists to offer services in places where there is a lack of providers without having to move or spend time dealing with bureaucracy. Reciprocation agreements already exist in other fiduciary fields, such as law. There is no need to limit the benefit to patients simply for the sake of deferring to the status quo.
Not only would interstate telemedicine alleviate significant disparities in access and care, it would also provide economic opportunities for states to attract the telehealth industry, particularly in-demand specialists. Without having to be in the same city as their patients, these clinicians are no longer geographically limited. Just as Silicon Valley was created through the growth of an industry, other areas in the country could see benefits in all sectors of the economy through the growth of telehealth.
With relaxed licensure obstacles, it will also be easier to require commercial health plans and state Medicaid programs to cover telehealth services. Network plans could become much larger, decreasing insurance costs for patients. Telehealth will not only increase access, it can make access cheaper.
Moving Beyond the Status Quo
Telehealth was already receiving significant attention before the pandemic as a way to increase access to rehabilitative therapy, but the pandemic demonstrated the urgent need to move from talking to acting. Now that we see its benefits, state and health leaders need to start constructing workable, long-term teletherapy health guidelines and solutions, including expanding telemedicine coverage for insurance companies and providers.
Let’s not go back to the status quo. Let’s do better and give people the care they need, now and in the future.