Expanding telehealth access is a lifesaver for vulnerable patients

Expanding telehealth access is a lifesaver for vulnerable patients

It’s hard to find a silver lining in a pandemic. But COVID-19 has convinced the medical and policymaking establishments, perhaps unwittingly, that high-quality care can be delivered remotely. The telehealth revolution is upon us.

Lawmakers waived numerous arcane and outdated regulations governing the use of telemedicine to make the service more available for everyday patients. Onerous restrictions that required patients to receive telehealth care in medical facilities and barred doctors from conducting appointments across state lines were as nonsensical before the pandemic as they are now.

It’s time to make this relaxed approach to telehealth permanent.

Even as in-person appointments have come back to life, digital medicine is expected to grow rapidly. On-demand telehealth companies raised $3.4 billion in funding through the third quarter of 2021.

That’s because patients really like telehealth. A Morning Consult survey conducted in October found that roughly nine in ten telehealth users were satisfied with the mode of care. An August survey that heavily sampled older adults and rural Americans also reported a similar telehealth satisfaction rate.

That makes sense, given that older and rural patients often face challenges getting to a doctor’s office.

For rural patients, telehealth was especially vital as a tool for preventive care. One in seven rural respondents said they would have foregone seeking care altogether if telemedicine were unavailable.

Telehealth is also a great deal. The typical cost of a telehealth visit for a respiratory infection is just $79, compared to $1,734 for emergency-room treatment.

Unfortunately, many of the waivers that permitted relatively unfettered access to telehealth are expiring – or have already done so. According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, just 18 states currently have waivers in place modifying requirements for telehealth in response to COVID-19.

Congress has expressed interest in making telehealth a more permanent feature of our health care system.

In June, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., introduced legislation that would preserve many of the crucial changes enacted during the pandemic for Medicare beneficiaries, removing geographic restrictions and permanently ensuring that qualified health centers and clinics can provide telehealth services to patients at home.

And just last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would permanently extend Medicare reimbursement eligibility for telehealth services to providers like occupational therapists, audiologists and physical therapists. Another recent bipartisan bill introduced in the House seeks to increase telehealth access for Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program patients.

For all the pandemic pains we have suffered, it’s time to lock in the collateral benefits we experienced as well – by enabling more and better telehealth options for patients.

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