Telemedicine gains momentum during pandemic and policy changes will keep it going

The Pine Journal reports…

Behavioral and mental health treatment was ahead of other specialties in terms of telemedicine use before the pandemic, but patients have still increasingly turned to those services over the past year.

One study found that telemedical care for mental health or substance abuse disorders increased from 1% of visits before the pandemic to 41% in October 2020.

For most people providing and receiving medical care, the escalated adoption of telemedicine is one of the silver linings amid the devastation of the pandemic. The funds funneled into the technology reflect its increased use. Investment in telehealth technologies in the first half of 2021 was greater than all of 2020, according to an analysis from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

While the benefits of telemedicine have been especially appreciated among people who live with physical disability or mental illness, telehealth has also created new barriers for users during a time when medical support was vital.

Telehealth was an important tool…

A NAMI survey found that telehealth visits provided connection in a time when people were starved for it, especially while grappling with mental illness.

“Great to be able to connect with services right from my home. Being able to continue to be in visual connection with my therapist during the most isolated days/weeks of this pandemic was crucial. Nice to see people without masks on!” one respondent wrote.

Several respondents stated that they appreciated the relief of not having to figure out transportation for in-person appointments. Others wrote that they thought it was the safest option for themselves and their families during the pandemic, and it allowed them to stay in a comfortable environment on days they weren’t feeling well.

Unfortunately access to technology was a barrier to some…

“The elderly and kids are the ones who probably lost the most ground in terms of the pandemic and having to move to telehealth,” Abderholden said.

survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health also found that these were the groups most affected by barriers with technology.

Although many communities found some solutions…

The SEMCIL [Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living] team offered a repository of 20 iPads and 50 Chromebooks to those in need during the pandemic, fueled largely by CARES Act dollars.

But access wasn’t the only issue…

Older patients seeking treatment for mental illness often encountered technological issues, sometimes only accessing their telehealth services after a provider walked them through how to download the software. Some users stuck with audio-only services, a lifeline for those living in areas with poor internet access.

Even for technology savants, telehealth posed a different problem: screen-time burnout.

School-age children who spent all day in front of their computers engaging in remote schooling would often not feel like diving into emotional issues in the same setting.

“The technology worked fine, but my child was burnt out on doing everything via video and started ending the sessions early. I’m not sure how to make the engagement better though,” wrote one respondent to the NAMI survey.

There were also privacy concerns for people who shared spaces with family members and couldn’t find a discreet area to candidly express their struggles with a mental health professional. Bastin found herself moderating what she said and when, even as she logged into her therapy sessions in the privacy of her room, because she worried family members might hear through the walls.

Regulations have been changed to make telemedicine easier now and in the future…

For years, advocates have tried to loosen restrictions surrounding telemedicine access. When the pandemic prompted widespread use of telehealth services, legislative changes finally followed.

The location where patients are eligible to receive telehealth services broadened in spring 2020 under emergency power authorization, enabling in-home care, and not solely in-hospital or clinic care. A second change allowed for audio-only care, a shift from previous regulations that restricted telehealth visits to video.

Legislation passed in June 2021 as part of the Health and Human Services bill made these changes part of law, not just part of the emergency powers declaration. The coverage of audio-only services is still in question due to concerns regarding quality of care, Renner said, but it is protected for at least the next two years.

This entry was posted in Healthcare, MN, Policy and tagged by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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