Using Telehealth to Fight the Novel Coronavirus

This post was originally published on March 12, 2020 at The Medical Care Blog.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is spreading across the US and around the world. Can providers use telehealth to help identify and manage the novel coronavirus while helping organizations manage capacity and prevent the spread of COVID-19? Read on to find out more.

Because of its airborne person-to-person transmission, coronavirus and related diseases are ideally suited to be identified and managed through telehealth. Those at high risk should avoid traveling and group settings to manage their own risk and to avoid spreading to others. An inpatient or outpatient setting may be full of people who are ill, particularly because we are in the midst of flu season in the United States.

People are most contagious when they are the most symptomatic, which is when they’re most likely to see a provider. Thus, using telehealth to help patients identify and manage their infection could help prevent the spread of disease and help provider organizations manage workflow.

Policymakers are making efforts to reduce barriers to telehealth to combat COVID-19

A large emergency spending bill will waive current Medicare geographic restrictions due to this public health emergency. So, whether a Medicare beneficiary is located in a rural or urban area, he or she can use telehealth to access services. In addition, this lifts the restriction about using telehealth at home, so Medicare beneficiaries who may be symptomatic can access care [PDF] while maintaining self-quarantine.

Because many providers may not already have video capabilities for telehealth in place, the emergency spending provisions also allow for care delivery using smart phones. Medicare beneficiaries are particularly at risk, so this effort is important to maintain their health and combat the spread of disease by allowing them to stay at home.

Private payers have followed suit, with several waiving fees and restrictions for telehealth visits.

In addition, private payers have reached out to patients directly and encouraged them to see providers using technology, rather than going in for a face-to-face visit. The changes vary by provider but include waiving copayments, payment parity for providers, and reducing requirements for virtual visits. Changes are being announced daily, so those with private insurance should consult their payer’s website.

Healthcare provider organizations have also increased access to telehealth services. Providers have added times for virtual visits, called in reinforcements through locum or per diem providers, and announced waivers of fees for virtual care. Many hospital systems and multispecialty groups are modifying their policies as more information about the novel coronavirus outbreak becomes available. Others are adopting hybrid systems, including drive-through testing with virtual results sharing and follow-up.

While these policy and organizational changes are due to the novel coronavirus, this may open the door to expanded reimbursement and acceptance of virtual care beyond the current outbreak. We will continue to monitor the telehealth and virtual landscape and share updates.