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.
Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, SNFs are continuing to respond to the many challenges presented, working to ensure there is sufficient capacity for residents as well as access to broader personal protective equipment, testing, and help with staffing. Yet even as SNFs, consumer groups, and governmental agencies work to manage these solutions, many leaders are shifting their focus from surviving the pandemic to charting new courses through it.
For one major area of care, today’s solutions might just last a long time. When it comes to quality access and delivery, SNF leaders must continue to consider alternative methods—such as telehealth—to fundamentally improve how residents access healthcare in the future.
Reducing Restrictions and Expanding Services
Before the pandemic, telehealth’s coverage was quite limited. Services were generally utilized in rural facilities where there were professional shortages. SNFs were also limited in the types of services provided, such as telepsychiatry and rehabilitation.
However, with the official declaration of COVID-19 as a public health emergency and the subsequent suspension of many telehealth restrictions, including waivers to dramatically expand telehealth services and digital platforms, many other service delivery limitations on telehealth were abandoned. Now, as telehealth services continue to expand and SNFs continue to work through the COVID-19 crisis, SNF leader must find opportunities to scale the technology and virtual care delivery opportunities.
The Time for Telehealth Is Now
Telehealth works. And the value that it brings to older adults residing in SNFs and other long-term care facilities in unquestionable.
COVID-19 put an unprecedented spotlight on the challenges and opportunities of telehealth, but the fact remains, we need our policymakers and SNF administrators to not squander the recent lessons learned and to invest in more robust telehealth policy solutions and permanent legislation expanding telehealth’s platforms.
For years, amidst our exponential hurtle toward a future in which older adults are projected to outnumber children,1 U.S. economists and social scientists have been sounding the alarm over America’s quickly aging population—especially in the context of how our population crisis could cripple our healthcare system. With the arrival of COVID-19, those warnings became louder and more urgent as SNFs became disease hotspots, straining our already overtaxed healthcare system.
As the abstract concern about America’s age problem became visible to the public eye—so too, did the need for change become glaringly evident. Yet with the onset of COVID-era innovations, the health crisis that spotlighted our health system’s greatest woes also highlighted its best solution: telehealth infrastructure.
In order to shore up telehealth’s vital role in re-imagining healthcare in nursing homes, we need expanded solutions—for example, in rheumatology, nephrology or even pain management—which will support and permanently expand telehealth platforms.
The Advantages of Promoting Telehealth in SNFs
Telehealth has clearly benefited SNF residents, healthcare providers, and staff in many ways, from offering solutions for residents to “visit” providers in distant locations and avoiding transfers to the hospital.2
The use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed residents to be treated in the comfort of their own “home,” as opposed to requiring admission, or in some cases, readmission to a hospital. Sending vulnerable seniors to the hospital, both during and post-pandemic, only increases their exposure to a wide range of adverse effects.
Secondly, telehealth helps residents with less acute care and in reducing social isolation, such as treatment for chronic care management and specialist consults like physical therapy, rehabilitation or mental health counselors.3
From the SNF’s perspective, the care management and clinical benefits have translated into cost savings and increased revenues. Enabling specialists to facilitate much-needed care remotely and improving the capacity of nursing staff to provide quality care on-site means the less time a resident will have to spend outside of the facility. Policy makers must take all of these efficiencies as a wake-up call in a post-COVID world and properly invest in telehealth to promote better health outcomes for SNF residents.
SNFs must also find ways to invest in staff training to help leverage telehealth services. Even if a resident has access to a device and a suitable application, that doesn’t mean they—or the staff—have the digital skills to take advantage of the telehealth options. Supporting staff education is key as technology and apps continue to change. Greater staff training and data analysis will only further advance clinical assessment and care management systems.
It’s now up to the SNFs to invest in and scale the technology
Disparities still exist, and even with today’s expanded possibilities for telehealth, not every SNF resident has access to the technology to take advantage of telehealth service. The time is now for SNFs to act toward legitimizing and expanding telehealth coverage.
“Telehealth is undoubtedly the future of health care,” U.S. Rep. John Curtis has said. “Ultimately, Congress’ objective should be to make many—if not all—of these regulatory changes permanent…because it will ensure we are keeping patients’ health and reducing the costs of care through value-based medicine as our top priorities as we consider expanding telehealth services throughout the country.”
Telehealth was already receiving significant SNF attention before the pandemic as a way to increase access to rehabilitative therapy, but the pandemic demonstrated the urgent need to move beyond this narrow scope of care. Now that we see its benefits, SNF leaders have to continue constructing workable, long-term plans and solutions.
SNFs cannot return to the status quo ante. Rather, they must use these lessons to continue to innovate. Telehealth can give residents the care they need—now and in the future.
- United States Census Bureau. (2018, Updated Sept. 2018 and Oct. 2019). Older people projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html
- Edmonton, T. (2017). Long term care: Telehealth—an untapped opportunity for nursing facilities. Today’s Geriatric Medicine, 10(3), 28.
- Abramson, A. (2020). Protecting nursing home residents during COVID-19. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/nursing-home-residents