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Telemedicine: An Invaluable Weapon During the COVID-19 Crisis

Author: Emily Straub

Guest Editor: Jenn N. Crittondon

April 10, 2020 4:18pm

Daily news about the ever-rising statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths is a constant reminder we are all vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus. While we do not yet have a vaccine to combat this pandemic, telemedicine (a.k.a., “telehealth”) has proven to be a crucial weapon in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

What is telemedicine? By definition, it is “the use of advanced communication technologies, within the context of clinical health, that deliver care across considerable physical distance.”[1] Examples of telemedicine include medical treatment via videoconferencing, store and forward transmission of medical data and images, and remote patient monitoring, to name a few.[2] [3]

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine enables physicians to provide healthcare services to essentially anyone, anywhere, on a remote basis. It protects patients and physicians from potentially exposing themselves to the potentially contagious viruses. Telemedicine increases the supply of physicians available to the public, and enables quarantined physicians to safely provide medical treatment to patients.[4] Additionally, telemedicine plays a crucial part in reducing overcrowding in hospitals and clinics.[5]

On March 17, 2020, the Federal Government announced Medicare will temporarily cover all telemedicine services for elderly Medicare recipients during the COVID-19 crisis.[6]  This is one of many new public benefits resulting from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act (a.k.a., the “CARES Act”).

Many state governors responded to the COVID-19 crisis by issuing orders requiring private insurance carriers to provide temporary coverage for telemedicine services (e.g., CA, AZ, MA, IA, NH, NJ, and IL). In states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, state-ordered coverage for telemedicine even includes audio-only telecommunications. This is something the Medical Group Management Association is currently urging the federal government to include as part of Medicare’s covered telemedicine services.[7] Audio only calls are key to providing access to low risk health care for elderly people who do not have access to videoconferencing technology.[8]

With the increase in demand for telemedicine, authorities anticipate chat-bots and artificial intelligence tools will become necessary to reduce patient waiting times, and prevent practitioners from becoming overburdened.[9] These devices are designed to streamline the patient intake process.[10]

On March 19, 2020, the American Medical Association, Physicians Foundation, and multiple state medical associations launched The Telehealth Initiative.[11] This initiative provides physicians with resources and guidance on how to incorporate telemedicine services into their medical practices.[12]

During the COVID-19 crisis, physicians will be permitted to use communication technologies that may not fully comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”).[13] Such communication technologies must, however, still be non-public facing in nature to comply with HIPAA privacy laws.[14]

 

[1] Gerald-Mark Breen, Jonathan Matusitz, PhD, An Evolutionary Examination of Telemedicine: A Health and Computer-Mediated Communication Perspective, Soc Work Public Health, 2010

[2] Id.

[3] Xiao-Ying Zhang, Peiying Zhang, Telemedicine in Clinical Setting, Exp Ther Med, 2016

[4] Roth, Mandy, 4 Ways You Haven’t Thought About Using Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Health Leaders, March 24, 2020, https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/innovation/4-ways-you-havent-thought-about-using-telehealth-during-covid-19-pandemic

[5] Lovett Rockwell, Kimberly, MD, Gilroy, Alexis S., JD, Incorporating Telemedicine as Part of COVID-19 Outbreak Response Systems, Am J Manag Care, March 19, 2020

[6] Department of Health and Human Services Press Office, Secretary Azar Announces Historic Expansion of Telehealth Access to Combat COVID-19, March 17, 2020, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/03/17/secretary-azar-announces-historic-expansion-of-telehealth-access-to-combat-covid-19.html

[7] March 27, 2020 letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services,  https://www.mgma.com/advocacy/advocacy-statements-letters/advocacy-letters/march-27,-2020-mgma-urges-hhs-to-further-waive-te

[8] Id.

[9] Roth, Mandy, 4 Ways You Haven’t Thought About Using Telehealth During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Health Leaders, March 24, 2020, https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/innovation/4-ways-you-havent-thought-about-using-telehealth-during-covid-19-pandemic

[10] Id.

[11] AMA Supports Telehealth Initiative to Improve Health Care Access, March 19, 2020, https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-supports-telehealth-initiative-improve-health-care-access

[12] Id.

[13] Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, March 2020, https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/emergency-preparedness/notification-enforcement-discretion-telehealth/index.html

[14] Id.

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