Commentary / Coronavirus

Is Telemedicine Here to Stay?

telemedicineCovid-19 is a respiratory illness that has caused more than 100,000 deaths worldwide as of mid-April. In addition to washing hands and wearing masks, one of the most recommended methods to reduce the spread of the virus is to stay home. Many countries have issued various orders restricting citizens movements and barring public gatherings. Global travel has ceased, and in the United States, stay-at-home orders are common in most states. All these measures have proven to be effective in reducing sharp increases seen since February and early March. However, the orders would have left millions of Americans without access to physical and mental healthcare. Although the lasting effects of the covid-19 pandemic are yet unknown, several key issues have been propelled to the forefront of this unprecedented event. One of them is telemedicine.

Telemedicine is an emerging concept that offers health-related services via technology, such as computers, laptops, or smart phone applications. Prior to the global health crisis, telemedicine was caught in a net of state and federal regulations, making it difficult for the masses to access care. However, in an effort to reduce spread and keep people out of emergency rooms, experts believe that the use of telemedicine can help “flatten the curve,” a term used to describe the measures taken to reduce the sharp increase in new coronavirus patients.

Last month, the United States government was forced to remove barriers to access telemedicine options. This was a crucial step to protect the country’s vulnerable seniors and those with underlying health issues. The elderly and people with diabetes and heart conditions are particularly vulnerable to covid-19 and suffer the highest death rates. On March 6, 2020, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which allows Medicare to offer expanded access to telemedicine services. Although temporary, many experts believe that it will be streamlined into Medicare as a regular benefit.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Medicare beneficiaries can access providers for office visits, preventative health screenings, and for mental health counseling from the comfort and safety of their homes. Requirements for “in-person” first visits have been lifted, enabling wider use of remote doctor visits during the pandemic.  In addition, states have relaxed telemedicine reimbursement requirements so that more people can be helped through Medicare, Medicare Advantage, and Medicaid. The relaxation of telemedicine regulation is in effect for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Telehealth in some rural areas may be a challenge, since internet speeds make it difficult to access care. However, many clinics remain open to allow people to use technology at appointed facilities. In the next decade, advances in technology are expected to address this issue.

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