As practitioners, during this era of quarantine and social distancing, we have been forced to embrace secure telehealth as a treatment delivery model. When bringing clients into our physical office was no longer safe for the health and safely of the community, we had to pivot how we practice. Fortunately, the federal government stepped in early in the crisis and relaxed telehealth laws and HIPAA regulations which helped make this initial transition a little easier and helped ensure clients had access to the care needed during this unprecedented time.
While telehealth technology is not new, widespread adoption prior to the pandemic had been relatively slow. But the policy changes regarding telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic “have reduced barriers to telehealth access and have promoted the use of telehealth as a way to deliver acute, chronic, primary, and specialty care.”[i] As a result of these policy changes, during this crisis, telehealth has been easier to deliver due to less restrictions on where we practice, the technology we use, and the privacy standards required. According to analysts at Forrester Research, “virtual health-care interactions on pace to top 1 billion by year’s end … a massive expansion from telemedicine usage before the coronavirus pandemic.”[ii]
But as quarantine and social distancing guidelines are relaxed, and ultimately when we move past the COVID-19 pandemic, what will telehealth look like? For starters, it is almost certain that telehealth will continue as a popular treatment delivery model even when in person visits can resume to pre-COVID levels. As practitioners, we are now much more comfortable delivering telehealth and our patients in turn have become accustomed to having the option for a virtual visit. So as practitioners, it is important that we have a telehealth delivery system in place for our patients.
The big uncertainty is what relaxed telehealth rules and regulations around the use of telehealth will be removed after the pandemic. Personally, I believe the HIPAA privacy regulations will and should be reinstated, as patient privacy needs to be a priority. This may be an issue for you as a practitioner if you have become too comfortable using social media platforms like FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or Zoom that were easy for you to access, but do not meet HIPAA requirements for security and privacy. Now is the time to make sure you adopt a HIPAA compliant telehealth platform so you are prepared, not scrambling, when you once again must ensure you meet these standards.
Another area that is not yet certain is whether the state licensure waivers issued during the pandemic that have allowed practitioners licensed in one state to practice in another will continue. According to an expert panel at a Telehealth Innovation Forum, most likely “everything will go back to pre-COVID” when the emergency is over, and states will once again require licensure to practice within their state.[iii] So if you are practicing across state lines where you are not currently licensed, take action now to begin to apply for additional state licensure or prepare to transition your patient to a licensed provider within their state if needed.
Congress is working on introducing bills to legislate new and permanent changes to telehealth laws as they apply to geographic and originating site rules. If passed into law, these changes would allow for reimbursement to continue post-pandemic when telehealth services are provided to a patient at home. According to Claudia Duck Tucker, vice president of government affairs at Teladoc, making these changes permanent has “broad support and bipartisan support.”[iv] This will be a huge win for practitioners, as this will allow us to continue getting reimbursed for telehealth visits after the pandemic.
Lastly, the biggest thing you can do to be prepare for telehealth after COVID is to stay informed on the latest in telehealth news and policy changes, and a great resource to do so is www.congress.gov.
Telehealth is here to stay even after COVID is over, so if you prepare now and act when you can as policy changes are implemented, you will be ready and able to continue to support your patients and deliver exceptional secure telehealth care!
– Martha Ireland PhD, RN, CS, CEDS-S, BC-TMH
[i] (Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), 2020)
[ii] (Coombs, 2020)
[iii] (Jerich, 2020)
[iv] (Jerich, 2020)
Coombs, B. (2020, July 28). Telehealth visists are booming as doctors and patients embrace distancing among the coronavirus crisis. Retrieved from CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/03/telehealth-visits-could-top-1-billion-in-2020-amid-the-coronavirus-crisis.html
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2020, July 28). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/telehealth.html
Jerich, K. (2020, July 22). Experts predict support for some, but not all, telehealth expansion measures. Retrieved from Healthcare IT News: https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/experts-predict-support-some-not-all-telehealth-expansion-measures