From The Daily Memphian | article| April 2, 2020

A pandemic brings value of telemedicine into focus

Congress included a provision in its new COVID-19 supplemental funding package that waives some restrictions for Medicare telemedicine coverage. On March 6, Medicare temporarily began paying clinicians to provide telemedicine services for beneficiaries across the country.

For patients, telemedicine provides faster care and helps individuals avoid hospitals, where they risk infecting others or coming into contact with disease. Despite the obvious benefits of telemedicine services, including reducing cost and offering greater convenience, adoption of its use is significantly low in the United States.

When the first U.S. patient with COVID-19 sought medical care at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in Washington in February, the host of concerns included providing high-quality care, keeping up-to-date on emerging information, and reducing other patients’ exposure to the virus, not to mention minimizing exposure among the hospital’s medical staff.

Infection control is an area where telemedicine carts proved essential. The carts allowed workers to roll video cameras and other telemedicine equipment into a patient’s room, so a physician could check in without physically being at the bedside.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended using telemedicine to direct patients to the right site of care during the outbreak. The World Health Organization recommended health care organizations should consider using telemedicine while evaluating suspected COVID-19 cases. Lawmakers agreed, and Congress included $500 million for the use of telemedicine services in an emergency aid package. Health insurers are also encouraging expanded telemedicine use and giving providers and patients incentives to use this delivery model.

The next frontier is raising awareness among patients about why they need to be taking advantage of the technology.

Medical centers may create a dedicated telemedicine service for COVID-19. Patients concerned about coronavirus can dial a hotline for a screening with a nurse, who will refer them to a video consultation with an infectious disease specialist if they need further evaluation.

There can be some limitations to telemedicine screenings. Clinicians wouldn’t be able to listen to a patient’s lungs without specialized equipment, and ultimate diagnosis requires a laboratory test.

Hospitals may proactively reach out to patients with various conditions ahead of their scheduled in-person appointments to see if they can be converted to a video visit.

Doctors will need — and deserve — time to confer with colleagues, consult literature and access other resources, as they learn how to best integrate telemedicine into their clinical toolbox, even during an outbreak.

One thing telemedicine can’t do is test people for the disease. But it can help to coordinate with health care centers or direct symptomatic patients to the drive-thru coronavirus testing centers around the country, including in Shelby County. The coronavirus outbreak may have long-term effects for telemedicine, exposing more people to telemedicine services and increasing its profile in the U.S.