10 updates on telehealth amid COVID-19 pandemic 

The fast spreading novel coronavirus has altered telehealth adoption and usage across the U.S., ranging from relaxed federal and state regulations, large influxes in virtual visits and new challenges providers must navigate. 

Here are 10 updates on telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, as reported by Becker's Hospital Review:  

1. On March 6, President Trump signed an emergency funding bill in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including $500 million in waivers for Medicare telehealth restrictions. The benefits expanded telehealth coverage to all Medicare beneficiaries regardless of location.

2. President Trump then on March 13 declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, which allowed HHS to waive federal licensing regulations to permit out-of-state physicians to treat patients via telehealth in states with large COVID-19 outbreaks. 

3. President Trump further expanded telehealth capabilities for Medicare beneficiaries on March 17, allowing beneficiaries to have common office visits, mental health counseling and preventive healthcare screenings through telehealth. On March 30, CMS extended Medicare telehealth coverage further, offering 85 additional services provided via telehealth. 

4. President Trump also on March 17 announced his administration will not enforce HIPAA penalties and suggested allowing providers to virtually communicate with patients via their personal phones. This action allowed providers to start using platforms such as Apple FaceTime, Zoom and Skype to perform telehealth visits with patients. 

5. Congress approved a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package on March 27, which allocates $185 million to support telehealth programs for rural critical access hospitals. On April 2, the FCC voted to adopt a COVID-19 program that will provide $200 million to equip healthcare providers with telehealth technology and implementation support. 

6. As the federal government relaxed telehealth coverage and guidelines, numerous states including New York, California, New Jersey and Florida began expanding the availability of telehealth services within their states. Several states, including California, New York and Massachusetts have also mandated that insurers waive costs associated with telehealth visits during the pandemic. Commercial payers such as UnitedHealthcare and Humana have also waived costs for virtual visits for their members. 

7. Since the start of the pandemic, some U.S. hospitals and health systems have rolled out free or discounted telehealth services, for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related services, to help patients stay home and practice social distancing. This, along with the relaxed federal, state and insurance regulations, has contributed to large surges in telehealth visits at several hospitals. Virtual visits at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., are up by 5,000 percent and Renton, Wash.-based Providence has seen a 20 to 30 fold increase in telehealth since the pandemic began. 

8. Despite its recent widespread and rapid adoption, telehealth still faces issues such as lack of broadband internet access for almost 35 million Americans as well as a national shortage of telehealth equipment such as headsets, webcams and laptops, according to Brett Daniel, MD, chief medical information officer at Providence. Health systems such as Cleveland Clinic also experienced long delays for virtual visits due to the large influx of telehealth requests in March. 

9. Hospitals including Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital and Robert Wood Johnson University in New Brunswick, N.J., have developed innovative telehealth solutions for COVID-19 patient care. Brigham and Women's Hospital in March began sending select COVID-19 patients home with devices to allow physicians to monitor oxygen levels and heart rates while Robert Wood installed "video robots" in pop-up tents that can transmit video of the patient to a physician inside the emergency department. 

10. Looking forward, virtual visits in the U.S. are expected to exceed 1 billion in 2020, with COVID-19-related care accounting for 900 million of said visits, according to a recent Forrester report. Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute said he expects telehealth and remote monitoring technologies to continue serving as widespread form of first defense in dealing with future pandemics.  

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