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What are telehealth and telemedicine? 

What are telehealth and telemedicine?

The American Academy of Family Practitioners (AAFP) defines telemedicine as specifically using telecommunications so that a provider can deliver clinical medical services to patients in different locations:

  • Virtual visits
  • Remote patient monitoring 
  • Mobile health

In contrast, telehealth includes telemedicine but also includes non-clinical services:

  • Patient education
  • Professional education, including continuing medical education (CME)
  • Administrative meetings
  • Provider training

What are the benefits of telemedicine for patients?

The use of telemedicine has made significant gains over the past several months because it offers many benefits to patients, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those benefits make it likely that the demand for telemedicine will continue after the pandemic has ended:

  • Convenience. As more providers adopt telemedicine as an option to in-person visits, it can be easier for patients to schedule appointments with their primary care provider. If their physician is not available or they need to see a physician outside of normal operating hours, there may be other on-demand options that can meet a patient’s needs. 
  • No time wasted traveling to and from their physician’s office. Patients will not need to spend hours traveling to and from their provider’s office. In addition, patients will not have to incur the cost of parking, gas or public transportation.   
  • Less time off from work. Patients can schedule their appointments during a break from work or after their normal work hours. If they do need to take time off, that time is minimal because they won;t need to spend time traveling from work to an office and back.
  • Less time away from children or others they care for. Patients who care for young children or older relatives may have a problem getting away from home to see their physician. Telemedicine gives them the option to get the medical care they need without neglecting the people who rely on them.
  • Increased privacy. Patients can see their providers from the privacy of their own homes or other locations.
  • No exposure to other patients in the waiting area. That means patients will not pick up an illness from others or spread their illness to others who are waiting. Telemedicine can thus serve as a bridge for patients who don’t feel safe physically entering a doctor’s office.
  • More access to specialists. Patients in rural or remote locations will be able to conduct at least some of their visits with specialists without traveling hours for an office appointment. Behavioral health services in particular have seen increased utilization and patient access due to telemedicine.

Learn about how DocASAP Telemedicine Access can improve access to specialists.

  • Timely care is a factor in Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) patient experience scores. CAHPS surveys ask patients to report on their experiences with health services, including whether they could get an appointment as soon as needed for urgent and non-urgent care.

What are the benefits of telemedicine for providers?

Providers also realize benefits when they offer telemedicine to their patients; Among those benefits are:

  • Greater efficiency. Telemedicine visits are typically more efficient than in-person visits, so physicians and other providers can see more patients in the same period of time. That can result in increased revenue for the practice. 
  • Replace in-person appointments for patients who are reluctant to visit the office. Many practices experienced reduced appointment volume as patients cancelled appointments because of the coronavirus pandemic. Telemedicine lets physicians provide those patients with a safe and comfortable way to continue their medical care.
  • Better follow-up visits with chronically-ill patients for improved outcomes. A recent survey showed that 91 percent of chronically ill patients said telemedicine would help them stick to a regular follow-up visit schedule and manage their prescriptions. 
  • Fewer cancelled or missed appointments. Patients will be less likely to cancel, skip or be late for appointments if they do not have to contend with transportation issues, lack of child care, or an inability to get time off from work. 
  • A competitive advantage. A recent study by Kaufman Hall said 70% of patients would consider virtual visits rather than travel to a physician’s office. A DocASAP survey also found that 45% of consumers said whether healthcare providers offered telehealth services would impact their desire to use those healthcare providers.

What are the benefits of telemedicine for payors?

Health plans have embraced virtual care as a method of reducing costs while ensuring access to care: 

  • Reduced costs. A typical telehealth appointment with a primary care doctor costs an estimated $50, while in-person visits cost an average $176. Unnecessary emergency room visits diverted to telemedicine can save payors thousands.
  • Seamless continuity of care. When care delivery is disrupted due to crises like the pandemic, telemedicine enables patients with chronic conditions to stay in touch with providers and continue treatment. 
  • Increased member satisfaction. More than 90% of consumers said they were satisfied with their overall telehealth visit experience, according to a DocASAP consumer survey. 

What regulatory changes have impacted telemedicine?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) restricted payment for telemedicine services to specific types of patients and visits, such as patients with chronic medical conditions who lived in rural or remote areas far from the nearest specialty physician. However, with COVID-19 came a wave of reforms that enabled telehealth expansion:

  • In March 2020, CMS announced it would be temporarily expanding access to telehealth for people who are on Medicare. The policy change meant Medicare would pay for more than 80 additional services when delivered through telehealth, including:
  • Emergency department visits.
  • Initial nursing facility visits.
  • Nursing facility discharge visits.
  • Hospice.
  • Home health.
  • 47 states have waived state licensing requirements to allow out-of-state providers to treat patients in their state via telemedicine. Those waivers are for the duration of the pandemic and it is not clear if they will be extended when the emergency is over. 
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has relaxed that requirement to allow DEA-registered providers to prescribe controlled substances after a telemedicine visit as long as the provider complies with state laws.

To help encourage the use of telehealth during the pandemic, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) temporarily relaxed its enforcement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

What are common barriers to telemedicine access?

Access to virtual care remains challenging for patients for several reasons:

  • Limited access to the internet. Rural and low-income communities with limited broadband access can struggle to access virtual visits.
  • Limited access to smartphones or laptops. Patients without mobile devices or who aren’t tech savvy cannot easily attend virtual visits without assistance.
  • Health insurance coverage. According to a DocASAP survey, 43% of consumers said whether a telehealth visit was covered by insurance was a top factor in their decision to schedule a virtual visit. 
  • Low patient engagement and awareness. Patients may not know they have access to telemedicine. Those who do schedule a virtual visit may become no-shows due to technical limitations and a lack of appointment reminders.

How can payors and providers optimize telemedicine access?

  • Add telemedicine information and filters to provider directories. Find-a-doctor tools should include a filter for telemedicine so patients can search for providers that offer virtual visits. Including telemedicine information at the provider and location level can also help patients understand if virtual care is available to them at a specific doctor
  • or office.
  • Replicate front office/intake protocols in virtual visit scheduling. Ensure provider scheduling protocols are replicated when scheduling virtual visits to ensure accurate, real-time availability.
  • Connect with payors to help patients and members easily identify in-network telemedicine providers. One of the chief reasons that consumers don’t use telemedicine is because they don’t know if it’s covered under their health plan. Providers should collaborate with payors to connect members to in-network providers that also offer telemedicine appointments.
  • Engage patients throughout their virtual care journey. Inform patients that they have telehealth services available to them with a combination of marketing and outreach strategies, such as website updates, emails, text messages and social media messaging. Incorporate pre and post-virtual visit communications to follow-up with each patient based on their individual needs (i.e., schedule a follow-up appointment, get test results, give physician referral, etc.)

To learn more about how to improve patient access to telehealth, visit our Telehealth Access page or Request a Demo.

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