Two temporary changes in federal policy that were made to help patients see doctors by phone or video during the COVID-19 pandemic should be extended permanently, said Senate health committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recently.

“As dark as this pandemic event has been, it creates an opportunity to learn from and act upon these three months of intensive telehealth experiences, specifically what permanent changes need to be made in federal and state policies,” he said.

The federal government should 1) permanently extend policy changes that allowed physicians to be reimbursed for a telehealth appointment wherever the patient is located, including the patient’s home, and 2) permanently extend the policy change that nearly doubled the number of telehealth services that could be reimbursed by Medicare. Alexander made his remarks in July during the Senate health committee hearing — “Telehealth: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic” — which featured testimony from telehealth experts about the rapid shift in response to COVID-19 from in-person doctor visits to health care being provided virtually.

But has telehealth proven that it is a viable alternative for care? The answer is yes, according to Justin Williams, CEO of healthcare delivery platform Noteworth.

“Unfortunately, we have historically adhered to a dogma that care can only be delivered in an office or hospital, but most care is not tied to venue with the obvious exception being surgery,” says Williams. “It doesn’t matter if you play football in your backyard, a field, high school stadium, or the Superdome, you are still playing football. COVID-19 has not only proven that telemedicine is a viable alternative for care but actually is preferable because the ceremony of requiring an exam room actually puts patients at risk and access to care is hampered by how many people can get into the facility.”

Williams says that if federal policy changed such that it rewarded “bringing care to people” instead of “bringing people to care” then there would be a fundamental seismic shift in how care can be delivered. “The current policies that pay to bring people to hospitals and doctor’s office actually put most patients at risk for transmission of other diseases, and COVID-19 has shown that telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, home health, and other areas are truly viable and safer alternatives,” says Williams.

He adds that telemedicine will open new prospects for industry. “This would also create a green field opportunity for new advances in technology. For example, it would be a nominal cost to add a blue tooth chip into a blood pressure cuff.”

Alexander noted that because of COVID-19, 10 years of telehealth experience has been crammed into three months. “Patients, doctors, nurses, therapists, and caregivers can write some new rules of the road, and we should do so while the experiences still are fresh on our minds.”

Sherrie Trigg

Editor and Director of Medical Content