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Telehealth Telemedicine. The Doctor is On. Responding to COVID-19

Health and Human Services and the ONC are encouraging healthcare providers to adopt remote medicine in response to the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.

According to speakers at last month’s American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) State Legislative Conference, doctors should push insurers to pay them fairly for the care they provide electronically, said Dr. William Thornbury, founder of an online appointment site called meVisit.

AAFP conference speakers also presented results of a recent survey of what family physicians thought about the use of telehealth. The survey, conducted by the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, included these findings:

  • In 2016, only 5% of physicians in privately owned practices said they used telehealth, while 26% of physicians in integrated health systems said they had done so.
  • Of the physicians who used telehealth, 76% practice in rural settings.
  • Telehealth was used for diagnosis or treatment (55%), chronic disease management (26%), and patient follow-up (21%).

Whether they used it or not, most respondents agreed that telehealth can improve access and continuity of care.

So instead of ignoring your virtual competition, plan to integrate telemedicine into your practice to maximize reimbursement. Start by understanding that while telehealth won’t replace face-to-face physician-patient encounters, it can augment the doctor/patient relationship.

You should also realize that telehealth technology is already in your office if you have a telephone, computers, and a connection to the internet. The infrastructure improvements most needed for more physicians to provide non-face-to-face care include physician training, development of credentialing guidelines and standards of care, adequate reimbursement for services, and clarification of licensing requirements.

Prices on web cameras and software are dropping, but systems must be encrypted and HIPAA-compliant to enable secure videoconferences with patients. In addition, practices must have a way of retaining that information for EHRs. There is no shortage of help: vendors can help a practice set up a secure portal and master the basics of telemedicine. Other resources are available, including practices already wired for telehealth, to read up on best practices for scheduling, guidelines for patients on how to use telemedicine, and other information.

A final note: operational issues might very well be more of a challenge than technological challenges. Practice managers have to get physicians and staff to accept patients having access to their records, in addition to access to practitioners.

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