Healthcare in the U.S. has never been easy, but with the coronavirus pandemic, a visit to the doctor is just risky. This is why this crisis has become a moment for telehealth, which links patients to doctors via the Internet. Although telehealth has been around for a few years, recent regulatory updates and increased demand have made it the easiest way to get many types of medical care. And, since you don’t have to leave your home to see a doctor, telehealth is also the safest option right now.
Although it has been a popular therapy platform for some time, telehealth is an option for many types of health care. Emergency centers encourage patients to use their telemedicine options instead of coming. Some hospitals use virtual platforms to screen and sort patients who may have Covid-19, while others use technology only to free up space and staff. Telehealth visits overall increased by 50% in March, according to one measure, and are expected to reach 1 billion by the end of the year.
“Our challenge has always been not to be adopted on a large scale because there has simply been no outreach on a large scale,” Telemedicine provider Doctors on Demand told Recode Hill Ferguson. “In the past month, everyone from the President of the United States to local governors and CEOs of healthcare companies has said that telemedicine is the first line of defense.”
Yet the idea of talking to a doctor via computer or smartphone is undoubtedly daunting for many. There are new services to discover, privacy issues to deal with, and insurance issues to resolve. But with rapid change, telehealth has never been easier.
1) Telehealth is easier than going to the doctor’s office
Telemedicine is generally as simple as a patient chatting with a doctor during a video call. Because these consultations require a layer of confidentiality and security, there are regulations in force for the protection of patients, but they are evolving in the face of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Department of Health and Human Services has announced that video platforms, such as FaceTime and Skype, are temporarily acceptable to health care providers. Zoom has also received temporary approval, although the platform is currently experiencing security concerns. You can also use a service specially designed for telehealth consultations, such as VSee, Doxy, thera-Link and Amazon Chime. Officials say platforms open to the public like Facebook Live and TikTok should be avoided.
If you have a regular doctor, they may already have a telehealth system in place, so check before looking for another provider. But if you don’t have a primary care doctor or need urgent care, you should check out telemedicine platforms like Doctors on Demand, Teladoc and Amwell. (If you have insurance, check the insurer’s website, as insurance can only cover or offer discounts for certain platforms.)
With one of these telehealth platforms, you need to look for HIPAA and HITECH compliance, as well as end-to-end encryption. HIPAA refers to the Law on Transferability and Liability for Health Insurance, and this regulation generally imposes restrictions on who can access your personal medical information, including when it is digitally processed, among other guarantees of confidentiality. (You can find a list of platforms that claim to be HIPAA-compliant here.) HITECH refers to the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which builds on the privacy protection of the HIPAA while governing and encouraging the use of electronic medical records.
2) Virtual care helps everyone fight the coronavirus
Many hospitals encourage patients to use virtual emergency care for a consultation before going to a clinic. This is particularly important for patients who think they have a coronavirus but who are not sick enough to require hospitalization. Virtual consultations allow doctors to triage patients without the risk of spreading the virus, and patients can get prompt treatment for their Covid-19 symptoms. (Currently, there is no proven treatment for the virus itself.)
“Doctors’ offices are going to be a very high risk site for Covid transmission because the people who come there will be sick, and the doctors themselves will be important carriers of Covid transmission,” says Michael Barnett, professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “We know that healthcare professionals get infected at very high rates and people can get rid of the virus when they are asymptomatic.”
Even if you feel healthy enough to see your doctor in person for an exam, you should reconsider. Many common health needs can be met with telemedicine tools, and staying at home is the best way to do your part in the fight against the pandemic.
3) Insurance companies facilitate payment for telehealth
If you have private health insurance, you should check whether your insurer has adjusted its telehealth reimbursement policies. For example, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield are giving up telemedicine copays for many members until June. But, as always, be prepared to read the fine print. Insurance companies have always been slow to offer telehealth options.
“Insurers, in general, aren’t trying to add a lot of new things their patients can do to lower healthcare costs,” says Barnett. “Providers are doing very well in the status quo of deeper service medicine and coming people in person.
In the face of the coronavirus epidemic, however, government health care programs are more open to telehealth solutions. For example, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) now reimburses Medicare patients for telehealth services across the country. The government had previously limited telehealth to specific circumstances, such as patients in rural areas, and these patients would usually need to go to a medical facility to see a doctor elsewhere. CMS also encourages states that run Medicaid programs to expand telehealth services.
That said, even those without medical coverage should be able to access telehealth services. Some community health clinics have already switched to telehealth services, and the Department of Health and Human Services has sent $ 100 million to more than a thousand health centers in part to promote telehealth. The Roman telehealth platform also offers free Covid-19 risk assessments.
For affordable mental health care services, you could consider the Open Path Nonprofit Psychotherapy Collective, which offers counseling for between $ 30 and $ 60 per session. There are also low-cost text-to-therapist services like TalkSpace and BetterHelp, although they are not a substitute for talking to a therapist in real time. You can read more about finding a therapist in this Vox guide.
4) Telehealth is more versatile than you think
Telemedicine is particularly suitable for certain types of medical care, including general consultations with doctors, mental health care, follow-up appointments and even certain specialties, such as dermatology. It is also fairly common for doctors to write prescriptions after a telemedicine visit, and the government is lifting restrictions on prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine to cure the Covid-19 crisis. On the other hand, some tasks like vaccination and taking samples have to be done physically.
“There are certainly gray areas where telemedicine is not great, but there is still a large amount of medication that could very easily be taken out of the office and delivered very easily on another medium,” says Barnett. “For doctors, 50 to 80% of what we do – depending on what you do – really doesn’t have to happen in person. “
If you have the right equipment, a surprising number of health measures can also be performed remotely. As the Center for Connected Health Policy, a nonprofit organization that promotes telehealth, points out, there are a wide range of medical devices that can help you check blood pressure to measure your blood oxygen levels. . Some wearable devices, like the Apple Watch, can even produce EKGs. In a telehealth scenario, these tools can provide your doctor with valuable information about your health.
5) Telemedicine is difficult without proper Internet access
Telemedicine often requires broadband powerful enough to host a stable video call, in addition to a device with the appropriate hardware. But according to a 2019 Pew study, 44% of Americans who earn less than $ 30,000 a year do not have access to broadband at home, and 29% do not have access to a smartphone.
Rural areas, as well as some urban communities, are particularly vulnerable to this digital divide. Although they have traditionally helped low-income people and rural Americans to access the Internet, libraries and community centers have been closed to meet the demands of social distancing.
There may, however, be signs of hope. The FCC also relaxed the rules for the Lifeline program – which allows certain low-income Americans to benefit from low-cost telephone and Internet services – and said that no one would be excluded from the service until summer. If you already have a smartphone, your provider may have increased the amount of data available on your mobile plan in response to the Covid-19 crisis. And you may not need a video compatible phone. CMS has now announced that providers can “assess recipients who have only audio phones,” according to an agency statement, in addition to expanding 80 other telehealth services.
6) In-person health care may never be the same again
It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus pandemic will make telehealth a mainstream. It should also be borne in mind that the Covid-19 response has resulted in the suspension of other types of health care, including cancer treatment and sex-based treatment. We may need to find a way to safely resume many forms of in-person care.
However, many people are using telehealth technology for the first time and creating their first impressions of telemedicine.
“For the first time, we have had massive levels of consumer awareness,” said Ferguson, general manager of Doctors on Demand, at Recode, adding that there could be even bigger changes in store for physical clinics. and private. practices. “They’re trying things out for the first time and they realize,” Wow, I can actually do a lot more to treat my patients via video than I thought. “”
Many of the adjustments for telehealth, including the suspension of co-payments and certain regulations, are temporary. But it can be difficult for insurers and the government to withdraw once patients are more used to using digital health services. After all, even when this pandemic is long gone, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to contact a doctor from anywhere? We could all be healthier for this.
Open source is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Source content is independent of the editorial staff and produced by our journalists.