The use of electronic devices in patient care, known as telehealth, has long held promise as the next big thing in the industry, but not until the coronavirus hit, raising a host of safety concerns, did it become commonplace.
Nearly 30% of health care visits are now conducted electronically, much of it made possible because federal and state regulators, as well as insurance providers, responding to the pandemic emergency, relaxed some of the rules and requirements that made it more difficult to use telehealth.
For example, under Minnesota law, some patients had to drive to a clinic or hospital to use that facility’s secure telecommunications equipment if they wanted to talk with a doctor located at another site. In the past year, that rule has been waived.
As the number of COVID-19 cases begins to rise once again in Minnesota, there is bipartisan support at the Legislature to make permanent many of the changes that have driven the increase in telehealth, with both chambers advancing bills to rewrite the state’s telehealth laws.
That’s quite an increase…
Before the pandemic, telehealth accounted for 3% of patient visits, according to a Minnesota Medical Association survey.
And there are benefits…
“The addition of virtual care clearly was a benefit to the patient, their satisfaction went up, quality went up and overall costs went down because we really architected our system to take advantage of virtual care,” he said.
The virtual visits worked best with patients who already had an established relationship with the physician and clinic and where hands-on care, such physical exams or blood draws, were not needed.
Telehealth also has been extremely popular in mental health and substance use treatment, with many health care systems reporting high volumes of therapy visits.
But providers need the reimbursement to make it happen…
Providers say it is important that they get the same insurance reimbursement payments as in-person visits because overhead costs are the same for virtual visits.
“It is not bricks and mortar costs as much as the infrastructure and all the people behind it to do that work,” said Ingham. “You can’t have virtual visits without those foundational costs.”