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The global coronavirus pandemic has led to massive disruptions in the healthcare industry this year. Healthcare providers have had to adopt new methods of evaluating and caring for patients that help reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting in-person services.
Prior to the current health crisis, telemedicine was specifically used for patients who did not have access to care, for instance those living in rural communities. This year, with many healthcare facilities and providers across the country limiting in-person services and restricting elective procedures, healthcare providers are turning to tele-triage methods for assessing and caring for patients to decrease the volume of persons seeking care in facilities, especially during times of high transmission of contagious diseases such as COVID-19.
Utilization of telehealth and telemedicine services has emerged as an industry solution to help provide safe access to medical care while limiting exposure of frontline workers and reducing the strain on overwhelmed healthcare facilities. In this blog post, we’ll discuss how these services are helping make healthcare more accessible while keeping costs down.
Telehealth Services Make Healthcare More Accessible
Telehealth and telemedicine platforms utilize virtual technology to help physicians and patients communicate with each other, even if they are not in the same physical location. This communication can be either in real-time or delayed, via phone, webcam, or email. Telemedicine can be used for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Remote access to healthcare services may increase participation for those who are medically or socially vulnerable or who do not have ready access to providers. Remote access can also help preserve the patient-provider relationship at times when an in-person visit is not practical or feasible. Telehealth services can be used to:
Screen patients who may have symptoms of COVID-19 and refer as appropriate
Provide low-risk urgent care for non-COVID-19 conditions, identify those persons who may need additional medical consultation or assessment, and refer as appropriate
Access primary care providers and specialists, including mental and behavioral health, for chronic health conditions and medication management
Monitor clinical signs of certain chronic medical conditions (e.g., blood pressure, blood glucose, other remote assessments)
Engage in case management for patients who have difficulty accessing care (e.g., those who live in very rural settings, older adults, those with limited mobility)
Follow up with patients after hospitalization
Telehealth Regulations Eased in Response to the Coronavirus
Federal and state legislatures have acted swiftly to ease telehealth regulations in order to ensure and increase the availability of medical and mental health services during the pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is encouraging healthcare providers to “adopt and use telehealth as a way to safely provide care to your patients in appropriate situations, including: routine healthcare, like wellness visits; medication consultation; dermatology (skin care); eye exams; nutrition counseling; mental health counseling.”
Additionally, HHS has taken steps to reduce HIPPA compliance restrictions during the national public health emergency: “HIPAA-covered healthcare providers may, in good faith, provide telehealth services to patients using remote communication technologies, such as commonly used apps – including FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Zoom, or Skype – for telehealth services, even if the application does not fully comply with HIPAA rules.”
Insurance Carriers Waive Telemedicine and Other Costs
In response to the coronavirus, many insurance carriers are waiving copays and deductibles associated with telehealth services. Many carriers are also waiving fees or reimbursing providers for mental health services. You can find a list of how the major health insurance providers have taken action here.
Mental Healthcare Spending to Increase in 2021
Between experiencing a global health crisis, uncertain economic outlook, and major disruptions to our daily routines, Americans are more stressed out than ever. For employers, this means that the cost of providing health benefits is going to rise.
According to HealthPayer Intelligence, “Mental healthcare utilization will be a major driver of healthcare spending in 2021. Because of rising unemployment, the coronavirus, and social isolation, mental health has been deteriorating for the past couple of months. As a result, around 12% of employer-sponsored health plan members said that they sought mental healthcare services due to the pandemic and another 18% plan to do so.”
Mental health providers are turning to telehealth and telemedicine platforms to facilitate the recent increase in demand for their services. There are many advantages to telemedicine as a solution to mental health issues exacerbated by coronavirus disruptions—to both employers and their employees, including:
Allows providers to continue to treat mental health issues while staying within social distancing guidelines, reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19 to patients
Increased access to doctors, especially in rural areas
Greater access to specialists, especially for mental health services
Higher cost savings for patients and plan sponsors
Related Reading: How COVID- 19 Has Impacted Mental Health Spending
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Taylor Cunningham is an Employee Benefits Consultant who provides clients with expert advice about the healthcare marketplace. She designs and implements benefits solutions to help her clients achieve their business goals. She welcomes any opportunity to discuss employee benefits strategies and improve a company's bottom-line.