Prevention, better treatments, and the widespread availability of vaccines have combined to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under better control. But if many practices and patients are now comfortable meeting face to face once more, the question remains: Will telehealth, which played a key role in extending care during the pandemic and helped to tamp down infection rates, continue to have a role going forward?
The answer is almost certainly yes. And the future of remote medicine is being written on two fronts — the legislative and the technological.
Telehealth Shifts the Medical Landscape
For starters, healthcare has shifted from “going to the doctor” to “seeing the doctor.” That often means physically traveling to a physician’s office. But millions of patients have discovered during the last two years that remote visits work perfectly well. And they work for both routine visits and even many specialty needs.
Usage of healow TeleVisits™ skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic, and while growth has slowed since then, it appears to have achieved a lasting place in the medical landscape. That’s a tribute to the skill of both programmers and providers, whose combined efforts have led to high levels of patient satisfaction with remote medical services.
A 2021 American Medical Association report on telehealth found that 85% of physicians were using the technology, and 60% of those surveyed agreed that it was helping them provide quality care. Among patients, 80% reported better access to care, and 62% said they were more satisfied with the care they received.
Legislation Extends Telehealth Flexibility
Ensuring that telehealth remains an option requires that insurers continue to pay for such visits. And that, in turn, requires political support.
The good news is that the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, a $1.5 trillion package passed by Congress in March, included funding to extend insurance reimbursements for several aspects of telehealth.
Thanks to the law, coverage has been extended for at least five months following the end of the federally declared public health emergency for basic telehealth coverage, audio-only visits, and a variety of practitioners, including for Medicare-covered services provided by occupational and physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists.
Legislative action means that practices and patients will avoid, at least for now, what some have called the “telehealth cliff,” a sudden end to payment practices that have supported what is now an integral part of medicine.
Hope for a Permanent Place for Telehealth
The American Medical Association noted recently that the March rules also direct the federal Medicare Payment Advisory Commission to issue a report on telehealth use by June 2023.
“Telehealth has huge potential to expand access to high-quality virtual care for all Americans,” an AMA letter to Congress stated. “Following the 2022–2023 evaluation period, all committees of jurisdiction will have at their disposal the necessary data to pursue evidence-based policymaking and take up comprehensive and permanent telehealth reform in a bipartisan manner.”
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