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Today’s Public Health Crisis Marks the Beginning of Widespread Telehealth Use

by Heidi Bullman

For some health systems, like the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), telehealth isn’t new. But in the wake of the novel coronavirus, a number of new healthcare organizations are adopting telecommunication-based and electronic health services to continue to deliver care to patients amidst widespread stay-at-home orders. While this rapid deployment of telemedicine has happened quickly, it appears to be setting the stage for the new normal after social distancing requirements are relaxed.

According to the American Medical Association, telemedicine as an alternative care delivery path, increased 53 percent from 2016 to 2017, outpacing urgent care centers, retail clinics, ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), and emergency department care which coincidentally declined 2 percent. And despite some of the longstanding regulatory restrictions of telehealth, including reimbursements, the gradual implementation of telemedicine in past years pales in comparison to the rapid rollout since the outbreak of COVID-19 and what it means for the future of healthcare delivery.

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“This is the catalyst,” explained Lisa Hines, MBA, former director of telehealth for the Greenville Health System, and now strategic advisor for healthcare at NetApp. “It’s an unfortunate catalyst that will jumpstart the widespread adoption of telehealth and possibly lift some of the restrictions, indefinitely, that have hindered implementation. When we look at this post COVID-19, even the payers will take a difference stance and move more quickly to permanently eliminate the barriers that initially prevented the scaling of telemedicine.”

MUSC, a pioneer in telecommunication-based and electronic health services, began addressing health disparities using telemedicine in 2005. Initially created to serve those needing maternal fetal medicine, telestroke, telepsych and critical care services, MUSC’s telehealth program includes a 32-hospital telestroke network, more than 80 unique telehealth services connecting 300 sites across South Carolina, and one of the fastest growing school-based telehealth networks in the country.

Despite having all this in place thanks to the organization’s pioneering initiatives starting 15 years ago, there was still much to prepare in order to deliver telehealth services during a pandemic. For instance, MUSC Health has deployed a Virtual Urgent Care platform to screen patients and identify those at high risk, helping them coordinate patients into a scheduled visit at a MUSC or collaborating partner’s respiratory collection site. Other telehealth initiatives include the deployment of an internally-built patient-reported outcome (PRO) solution to monitor patients who tested positive but who don’t require hospitalization. The end goal is having the ability to provide in-home assessments and intervention when needed rather than adding to the case load at physical urgent care facilities and EDs. Within the hospital, MUSC is using telehealth to reduce the threat of exposure to healthcare workers via two-way audio and video capabilities – allowing providers to interact safely with patients either testing positive or in isolation waiting for results.

With many ambulatory clinics being impacted, MUSC is also supporting providers with additional telecommunication processes. Epic MyChart Video Visits and Virtual Check-Ins are allowing them to rapidly scale the Video Visit option to all MUSC providers, including the functionality for scheduling, clinical documentation, wRVU collection, and charge capture.

While COVID-19 may have been the catalyst, the appetite for telehealth isn’t likely to decrease anytime soon.

“Without this crisis, the adoption we’re seeing today would have taken at least another five years,” explained Shawn Valenta RRT, MHA, Administrator of Telehealth for MUSC. “I believe this exposure to telehealth will establish a new baseline of utilization, and it will be interesting to see how federal and state telehealth policies will be impacted by this situation in the years to come.”

Beyond COVID-19, there’s logic behind remote health services including safety, for both patients and providers, as well as ease and accessibility. Previous barriers, including federal and state regulations and the lack of infrastructure to support telehealth, have been knocked down. In the future, partly as a result of COVID-19, patients, providers, payers and public health officials will no longer look at telehealth as a secondary treatment option – from here on, a proven strategy for front-line care.

For more on deploying telehealth services to combat COVID-19, click here.

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