Across the country, healthcare providers are quickly ramping up their capacity for delivering care and services at-a-distance as they scramble to respond to new challenges posed by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. Telehealth technology is playing a significant role in helping providers overcome the barriers to patient engagement caused by extreme measures like shelter in place orders and mass quarantines. It is also proving to be a powerful tool for reducing caregivers’ exposure to the virus by stemming the flow of emergency room and urgent care traffic. In fact, about 75% of all doctor, urgent care, and ER visits could be handled effectively and safely with telehealth technology.
Telehealth digital and communication technologies have been changing healthcare experiences and reducing costs for well over a decade. Nearly all providers have implemented some level of telehealth programs; however, the maturity level of their telehealth capabilities varies widely. Regardless of their telehealth maturity level, the current pandemic is giving healthcare providers a renewed interest and sense of urgency for delivering new or expanded telehealth solutions.
Convincing patients to sign up for, and actively use telehealth services has also traditionally been a challenge. Over time, however, patients are slowly growing accustomed to using technology to communicate with their doctors instead of making office visits. With social distancing forcing people to stay home, there has been a massive influx of patients using telehealth services for the first time. Many experts believe that once these new patients discover how convenient telehealth services are, they will continue using the services even after the pandemic subsides. Kate Dougherty, Cerium Networks Senior Consultant, commented on the ease and convenience of using telehealth technology, “Telehealth platforms allow patients to connect with their caregivers on their terms, ensuring they are receiving the right care from the right person, using their choice of device.”
Patient portal technology, a critical component of telehealth, is proving to be an important tool during this pandemic for helping to keep healthcare contact centers from being overwhelmed. Patient portals enable people to take an active role in maintaining their health from their home computer or smartphone at any hour of the day and night. Typical portal services include messaging your doctor, accessing your health records, managing your appointments, viewing test results, and ordering prescription refills, all from the relative safety of home.
Digital Triage Tools
Digital triage tools, AKA online symptom checkers, help patients evaluate their symptoms and get treatment recommendations online, without requiring the intervention of a healthcare worker. Digital triage tools use AI to guide patient interaction and diagnose medical conditions, freeing up healthcare workers to perform more critical tasks. In addition to freeing up valuable resources, digital triage tools streamline the intake process for patients who may have coronavirus, providing them with appropriate phone numbers to call in their area and offering them advice on next steps such as calling ahead before getting in-person care.
Remote Patient Monitoring
Remote patient monitoring is another category of homecare telehealth technology being used to combat COVID-19. With remote patient monitoring, patients employ devices at home to measure their vital signs. The vital signs are sent to a central location where they can be monitored by healthcare workers in real-time or reviewed over time to look for trends in the patient’s health. Remote patient monitoring is particularly beneficial for post-operative follow-ups and assessing patients with chronic conditions. Advanced remote patient monitoring solutions feature threshold alerts and risk scoring to help care workers proactively track their patients and intervene quickly and effectively when necessary.
On March 20th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a new policy that temporarily expands the use of non-invasive, vital sign-measuring devices so health care providers can use them to monitor patients remotely. According to FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, M.D., Ph.D., “Allowing these devices to be used remotely can help health care providers access information about a patient’s vital signs while the patient is at home, reducing the need for hospital visits and minimizing the risk of exposure to Coronavirus,”
Telemedicine – Virtual Care
Virtual care, a.k.a. telemedicine enables patients to visit with a doctor from a remote location by phone or video, anytime, day or night. During a virtual visit, the doctor can answer questions about symptoms, evaluate risks, provide advice, and refer patients to specialists. Virtual care is a powerful tool for treating patients while keeping healthcare workers safe during a pandemic.
Healthcare providers offering telemedicine services have seen a tenfold increase in the volume of virtual visits since the COVID-19 pandemic started. This has many healthcare providers across the country ramping up their technology for gathering patient history and providing consultations to more people. Additionally, the increased emphasis on virtual care is stimulating providers to evolve their telemedicine offerings to offer additional complex services such as multi-provider calls and provide treatment and therapy remotely.
Unfortunately, remote virtual care has some limitations for COVID-19 testing. For example, collecting samples for lab testing or taking a chest x-ray can’t be done remotely. However, it is invaluable for making an initial assessment of symptoms. Virtual care is also showing its value during the pandemic for conducting non-virus-related appointments remotely without exposing the patient or doctor to the virus.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, reimbursement to providers and location constraints inhibited the availability and adoption of remote virtual care services. Traditionally, Medicare had only paid for telemedicine services provided to people in rural areas with specific audio-visual equipment. However, in response to the pandemic, Medicare is temporarily removing stipulations and making payments to healthcare providers for telemedicine services in more circumstances, delivered to more locations. The current situation also has private-sector insurers loosening their stance on telemedicine, with many of the major healthcare insurers temporarily covering all telehealth consultations.
In addition to remote virtual care, telemedicine technology is effective for isolating potentially infectious patients in hospital settings. Performing the initial intake via a virtual platform, while the patient is kept in isolation reduces risks to hospital staff and other patients. For example, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, they are employing a tele-triage process. Patients who arrive with COVID-19 symptoms are given a mask and an iPad and directed to an isolation room. The patient then uses the iPad to video chat with a nurse practitioner who can evaluate their symptoms and determine next steps from a remote location in the hospital, all without face-to-face interaction.
Advanced telemedicine technology makes it possible for a doctor or nurse to send a robotic device into an infected patient’s room while they remain safely outside. The robot gathers the patient’s vital information and enables healthcare workers to provide analysis, treatment, advice, and moral support through a “face-to-face” video application. The doctor or nurse operating the robot can see, examine, and engage the patient in a conversation, without exposing these healthcare workers to the virus and minimizing spread within the vulnerable hospital environment
Future of Telehealth in an Age of Pandemics
Telehealth technology is significantly impacting the effort to overcome the most challenging problems we face from this global pandemic. From affording healthy people access to healthcare services from the safety of their homes to lightening the load on over-burdened healthcare resources, COVID-19 is driving the mass adoption of telehealth technologies. As people become more accustomed to using telehealth technologies, cost savings and convenience will remove barriers to user adoption. At the same time, healthcare providers will benefit from improved operational efficiency, safer work environment, and better patient outcomes that telehealth technology offers.