Congress’ Medicare and public health emergency extensions prove to be beneficial for vulnerable communities, and leaders have the opportunity to create a lasting impact.
Some 57 million rural Americans rely on hospitals for medical care, according to the American Hospital Association. But the pandemic-induced pivot to telehealth has increasingly helped those typically left out of the healthcare reform picture get better and quicker care.
In the latest federal reform, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 — dubbed the Omnibus Bill — in mid-March, extending Medicare coverage for telemedicine appointments and virtual care for 151 days beyond the end of the designated public health emergency (PHE). Add in the extension of the PHE itself, and this is a win for those vulnerable populations and those living in areas without sufficient access to high-quality healthcare.
For healthcare providers and executives, this means more opportunities to make a lasting, direct impact on those communities. And the solution is telemedicine.
Pandemic Relief Programs Increased Access to Healthcare
Many healthcare providers have seen firsthand the benefits of initiatives such as the CARES Act and its programs; reimbursement for COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and treatments for the uninsured and Medicaid-ineligible are just a few. In fact, as of January, providers have seen $17.1 billion in reimbursed funds and vaccine insurance coverage required for private health insurance providers.
Coupled with Medicaid expansions, almost 5 million Medicaid and CHIP enrollees were able to receive affordable COVID-19 treatment within the first 18 months of the pandemic, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But healthcare goes beyond COVID-19. While telehealth usage has increased throughout the pandemic, it's a means to provide all types of healthcare to patients. Because it ensures access to care regardless of distance, underserved populations can take control of their healthcare and schedule more frequent health visits and checkups.
Adopting Telehealth Technology to Make a Greater Impact
The impact of telemedicine in healthcare is here to stay. These things won't go away or be put “back in the box," even after the PHE has ended. Already, we are seeing the hybrid approach, in which certain visits are done virtually and others aren't, creating a balance in the delivery of care model.
That said, even when policies adapt post-PHE, rural communities remain one of the groups with the most need for telehealth — hence, the concern over the temporary nature of these programs. The PHE extension and its impact on rural communities that have come to rely on affordable access to care via telemedicine technology have leaders rethinking their long-term strategies.
Telehealth is the center for rural health innovation, and telemedicine solutions need to be sustainable. A more adaptable telehealth program is one that is built to be leveraged across the care continuum and at multiple touchpoints — not just one-off appointments. The telehealth strategy has to become more ingrained as part of care delivery and not an exception. The technology has to be simple, easy to use, and reliable, and the health organizations using it will have to remain committed and agile.
Here are some ways to ensure a smooth onboarding process for telemedicine:
1. Have humility
As cliché as it may be, we are experiencing the PHE together. Strong leadership is essential, especially in times of crisis. Be sure to remain empathetic and have humility. Employees and patients will appreciate it. Work together with clinicians to learn the new normal of telemedicine. We all know the prevalence of burnout in the industry, so work hand-in-hand with employees to show that telehealth will relieve burdens by allowing doctors to see more patients in less time.
2. Customize your telemedicine setup
Whatever platform your organization uses, it should support different customizations based on varying patient and provider needs. When technology is personalized to the users, the better the provider and consumer experience, so aim for modular software that can accommodate the clinical specialties you need (today and tomorrow) within your system.
3. Use medical devices
As technology becomes more advanced, organizations and providers should offer a range of medical devices for in-clinic and at-home uses. This way, patients have more access to the care they need, from ultrasounds and stethoscopes to monitoring devices to capture vitals. Delivering the same diagnostic experience of an in-person visit will help those patients feel secure in their quality of care.
4. Integrate with EHRs and IT systems
Tasks shouldn’t disrupt workflows. Creating seamless integration with an EHR can help as they record data for virtual appointments, speeding the process and accuracy. Be sure to check telehealth equipment requirements and know how to best complement and support them from within your existing IT infrastructure.
5. Support community investments
Healthcare leaders can help keep patients and their communities healthier by supporting other community initiatives and investments. After all, those environmental, social determinants, and location influence how healthy people live.
As we all continue to move through the PHE together, it's key that we use the time we have to ensure we harness telehealth innovations and momentum to serve the communities most in need — all in the most sustainable way possible. When we do this, we change lives.
Eric Bacon is president at AMD Global Telemedicine, Inc. He has 20 years of experience designing new medical devices and telemedicine solutions that are deployed in more than 100 countries and used in millions of consults.