Coronavirus boosts demand for telemedicine as experts weigh pros and cons

The spread of COVID-19 has prompted public officials to urge people against coming into close contact with others, creating the need for non-traditional forms of interaction or consumption of medical care. That includes telehealth or telemedicine, which allows patients to see doctors and receive prescriptions remotely.

On Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced multiple reforms, allowing for temporary changes in government-provided health care, including 80 additional services delivered through telehealth.

“CMS is allowing telehealth to fulfill many face-to-face visit requirements for clinicians to see their patients in inpatient rehabilitation facilities, hospice and home health,” the agency said.

The technology has been touted by others as industry demand has appeared to increase dramatically during the pandemic.

“Telehealth is an important first line of defense against COVID-19 and immediately once this outbreak began nearly all of health care’s key stakeholders started to direct care to telehealth,” said Dr. Peter Antall, Chief Medical Officer for AmWell, a popular telehealth app.

“This has created an enormous increase in our volume and the demand just keeps climbing,” he said. “Nationally, usage of our platform is up over 400 percent and is even greater in certain geographies where infections are surging. In these areas, we have seen has usage surge by 650 percent or more in mere days.”

Health insurance giant Cigna similarly told Fox News that it saw an increase in call volume for telemedicine and waived out-of-pocket costs related to the coronavirus.

“We recently announced that Cigna will waive customers’ out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 testing-related visits, including telehealth, through May 31, 2020,” a Cigna spokesperson said.

The company also opened a coronavirus hotline that allows patients to access clinicians for support managing fear, anxiety, and stress surrounding the pandemic.

According to Antall, remote care was also an important tool for minimizing the impact on medical facilities which might be overwhelmed by the virus’ impact.

“Telehealth offers a safe channel to obtain expert medical guidance quickly,” he said. “Care teams can screen patients, assign risk, answer questions, and recommend the next steps a patient should take. This capability greatly minimizes the demands on in-person primary care, urgent care, [Emergency Department], etc.”

Telehealth has been criticized, however, for its potential impact on quality of care. Harvard Medical School professor Ateev Mehrotra previously warned that the telehealth created “serious quality gaps” and could be overutilized to the point of hurting the target population.

“While I think that there’s a lot of evidence that telemedicine can be equal quality in many circumstances, I think people have expanded that too far, and at least in some work that we have ongoing we’ve documented that in D2C telemedicine there are serious quality gaps in terms of antibiotic prescribing,” Mehrotra reportedly said.

Antall indicated to Fox News that telehealth was especially useful for meeting the economic demands of pandemics like COVID-19.

“A pandemic like COVID-19 risks overwhelming our health care system. We see this occurring in certain areas already. Telehealth provides access to quality and convenient care at scale. Telehealth in this way can bring any excess provider supply to bear to meet the demand,” he said.

As the virus spread, the Trump administration sought to limit exposure by expanding telehealth benefits for Medicare recipients, which includes people in the higher-risk age groups for the disease.

The Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-leaning think tank, praised the expansion of telemedicine but told Fox News that further reform was needed.

“This good work can’t stop here, though. It is critical that we further open opportunities for those on private insurance to see medical professionals — including nurses and physicians assistants—to practice telemedicine without being confined to the borders of their own state,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at FGA. “If we want to flatten the curve, it’s going to take all hands on deck.”

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