A recent press release issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that Medicare telehealth visits increased from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020, a 63-fold increase. The release reiterated that Medicare services approved for telehealth during the pandemic “will remain in place through December 31, 2023, while CMS continues to evaluate whether these services should be permanently added to the Medicare telehealth services list.” The CMS had previously announced it will continue to cover mental health visits delivered by Rural Health Clinics and Federally Qualified Health Centers. This includes interactive video-based telehealth and audio-only phone calls.
While we wait on the CMS to determine its long-term telehealth reimbursement strategy, there is no denying that telehealth services are cost-effective, enable greater access to care, and are an efficient format for delivering high-quality care. In fact, a study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that telehealth can deliver “as good as or better than usual care” outcomes for specific populations. In other words, we now have proof that telehealth works; it’s no longer just a concept.
Since most hospitals and provider practices already have telehealth workflows in place and patients have, for the most part, embraced virtual care, it’s now time to identify how best to optimize telehealth ongoing—regardless of what the CMS eventually decides to do.
Of all providers, behavioral healthcare practitioners saw the highest utilization rates for telehealth during the pandemic—a 32-fold increase over pre-pandemic rates. This is significant. Of the more than 51 million Americans living with a mental illness, fewer than half receive the treatment they need. The pandemic only exacerbated the need—a need that won’t magically disappear once the pandemic has gone.
Telehealth can be used to assess, triage, diagnose, and treat behavioral health conditions at any time from any location. This means patients can get the appropriate treatment faster. For patients without access to convenient transportation, or for those living in areas with few behavioral health resources, telehealth helps fill the gap.
Remote Patient Diagnostics and Virtual Collaboration
Telehealth is especially beneficial in bringing together a high-quality virtual care team, no matter where the patient is located—in the hospital, at home, or at another care facility. In settings like the emergency department, having quick access to specialists can help eliminate delays in care.
Telehealth can effectively bring the patient, physicians, counselors and the patient’s family together in real time to discuss symptoms and to perform assessments and diagnoses. It also enables patients and their families to ask questions and provide input, which enables better understanding and adherence to the care plan.
A study published by the AHRQ found that nearly 20% of patients experience some type of adverse event within the first three weeks after being discharged from a hospital, with the majority of those events being preventable. The top three issues identified were adverse drug events, hospital-acquired infections, and procedural complications.
The same study found that additional “discharge hazards” came from patients being discharged while test results were pending, or that they were released needing an outpatient “diagnostic follow-up.” Telehealth can effectively address these issues by giving hospitals and primary care physicians the ability to remotely monitor and care for these patients in the critical days after discharge.
How are providers using telehealth right now
It’s estimated that 73% of our total healthcare dollars is spent caring for patients with multiple chronic conditions. That number is even higher for Medicare. The majority of these costs come from “acute care hospital and emergency department (ED) visits that could be prevented with earlier intervention.” Remote patient monitoring and chronic condition management can help.
Research shows that remote patient monitoring can reduce hospitalizations by 35% and visits to the emergency department by 68% for patients with Chronic Obstructive pulmonary Disease or Chronic Heart Failure. In addition to improving outcomes, remote patient monitoring and chronic care management programs present significant revenue potential, especially when care is provided by non-physician staff such as registered nurses.
How has telehealth changed and grown due to the COVID-19 situation?
Telehealth can help reduce costs, improve outcomes, enhance the patient experience, and improve provider satisfaction—an important benefit in a time when stress levels are through the roof and so many healthcare workers are leaving their jobs. In a survey by the COVID-19 HealthCare Coalition, 55% of providers said telehealth has improved their job satisfaction, 60% said it has improved the health of their patients, and 80% said it has improved timeliness of care for their patients.
The bottom line is that we can’t wait for the CMS to decide on how telehealth has changed during COVID . More forward-thinking hospitals and provider organizations are choosing to move forward with their own long-term strategy for telehealth. The benefits are too great to wait.