It’s no surprise that the current COVID-19 pandemic, with its need for social distancing, has spurred renewed interest in alternate health care delivery methods, particularly coronavirus telemedicine. Lawmakers, cognizant of the regulatory and reimbursement obstacles that have plagued the telemedicine industry for years, have acted quickly to ease such restrictions to enable patients to receive medical care without leaving their homes. Now, healthcare providers are suddenly finding themselves either learning how to use telemedicine or expanding existing programs to center more heavily on the telemedicine modality. However, providers who value long-term satisfaction and usability would be wise to pause to consider several factors as they design their coronavirus telemedicine initiatives. Some of the most critical factors are highlighted below.
1. Once the pandemic ends, will you continue to use telemedicine as part of your practice?
Planning ahead is crucial because nobody knows if the current, more lenient restrictions on the telemedicine industry will remain in place after the urgency of the pandemic fades away. In addition, HIPAA enforcement has been temporarily lightened in order to make healthcare more accessible and immediate for patients and providers through consumer products such as FaceTime. This requirement will certainly be returned to full strength after the coronavirus crisis ends, rendering consumer products invalid for medical use due to their lack of HIPAA compliance. Medical facilities that plan to use coronavirus telemedicine only temporarily, whether for COVID-19 cases or other medical needs, can build their systems to comply with the eased regulations without such worries.
On the other hand, a clinic that elects to incorporate telemedicine as a permanent part of its practice will need to follow the full HIPAA rules after the pandemic ends. In case other lightened regulations are revoked, clinics will also need to be ready to work within the tight framework of legislation. For instance, the stipulation that providers be licensed in the patient’s state has been lifted pro tem; interstate licensing for physicians is currently waived for telemedicine visits. However, if interstate licensing returns to its previous state-bound requirements, then a clinic that has built a large patient base in other states may find itself losing a significant portion of its patient population after the COVID-19 crisis is settled.
2. Have you discussed liabilities with your insurance broker?
Your professional liability provider should be informed if you plan to see out-of-state patients via telemedicine; in these cases, the liability laws of the patient’s state may apply to you. In addition, considering the recent rise in cyber attacks, cyber-insurance may be desired in case electronic medical records (EMRs) or online patient visits are hacked.
3. What type of prior relationship with patients is prerequisite for your telemedicine visits?
Each state has its own stipulations; some permit coronavirus telemedicine only for existing patients, while other states allow new patient intake via telemedicine. Treatments involving opioids and other controlled substances have more stringent regulations, often requiring an in-office visit before telemedicine can be used with the particular patient.
4. What is your long-term treatment plan for patients?
Each individual’s treatment plan should include provisions for the continuity of care, including resources and referrals, in case reinstated laws prevent you from maintaining a relationship with that patient beyond the resolution of COVID-19.
If you believe your clinic or facility may extend coronavirus telemedicine beyond the pandemic, then the practical and logical approach would entail designing your program carefully in order to comply, or be easily altered to comply, with the stricter laws and regulations involving telemedicine. This may seem excessive in the current relaxed environment, but in the long run, proper preparation will position your practice more favorably to continue caring for your patients via telemedicine. After all, if you’re going to the trouble of designing and implementing a telemedicine program, then it makes sense to build the system correctly and carefully in the first place; thus, once the crisis is resolved, your clinic will be able to smoothly transition telemedicine from a temporary measure to a permanent tool.