What the coronavirus pandemic means for the telehealth industry

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., healthcare organizations in urban and rural setting are recommending patients utilize telehealth and virtual care options to reduce the risk of further infection. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Companies are asking people to avoid unnecessary travel and healthcare organizations are swiftly building out their capabilities. For example, Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center allows for telehealth visits through the health system's app and the Wall Street Journal reported that Bethlehem, Pa.-based St. Luke's University Health Network is testing a videoconference tool for older patients, who are vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Amwell also recently reported an increase in virtual visits, and the company expects to see that trend continue. "Already we've seen about a 10 percent to 20 percent uptick in patient traffic," said Peter Antall, MD, CMO of Amwell. "As such, we're working to scale our operation to ensure we can meet the increasing demand for telehealth visits at this time."

The company has a network of more than 240 health systems that include 2,000-plus hospitals and 55 plan partners that have access to Amwell's virtual care platform. The company is also working to ensure it complies with national and international standards and is training its workforce as well as working with clients and government officials on coordinated efforts. Amwell has an established infection control officer who guides operations and quality teams and created a new COVID-19 Readiness Team.

"This needs to be a joint effort," Dr. Antall said. "The only way we may be able to combat this outbreak is by working together and ensuring that, for example, if one of our doctors sees a patient virtually who they deem at high-risk for COVID-19, that we have a referral process in place to have that patient seamlessly transferred to a local hospital for further testing."

On the flip side, otherwise healthy patients without COVID-19 symptoms can avoid further exposure at the physician's office by conducting a virtual visit when possible. Some hospitals have asked non-urgent patients to reschedule or conduct virtual visits, and when possible the physicians or nurses answering those calls are working from home.

"Primary care providers can use telehealth as a digital front door to triage their patients while keeping their staff and other patients safe," Dr. Antall said. "Doctors practicing in hospitals can use telemedicine carts to 'see' patients without physically being in the room with them. This can help keep providers and staff safe during disease outbreaks like this."

Telehealth can minimize the demand on in-person primary care or emergency department visits, even for those physicians who choose not to use telehealth with their patients. Amwell has thousands of providers across the U.S. trained in telehealth delivery and continue to flex up. The company has also developed a white label referral protocol and is advising partners on the proper messaging to patients, members and employees.

"Our main concern is ensuring that patients are able to get the care they need and providers are kept safe and healthy," said Mr. Antall. "Incidentally, we have seen that this outbreak has greatly increased awareness for telehealth as a quality care option generally, and more specifically, as a tool that can be utilized as a public health defense during disease outbreaks or natural disasters."

Before the coronavirus outbreak, telehealth was already on the rise. In 2018, the global telehealth market was $49.8 billion and was expected to reach $266.8 billion by 2026, increasing at a 23.4 percent compound annual growth rate, according to Fortune Business Insights. As government agencies and branches including CMS, CDC and Congress all communicating the importance of telehealth in the outbreak solidifies telehealth as an important tool for the medical community.

On March 6, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that lifted Medicare's restrictions on telehealth reimbursement, so all beneficiaries have access to virtual visits, regardless of their location. Several private payers as well have moved to make virtual visits accessible to their plan members.

"The recent funding bill, which includes loosened restrictions for telehealth reimbursement, will also help make it easier for patients, especially seniors, to access telehealth," said Dr. Antall. "With reimbursement being a historic headwind for the industry, hopefully this should help pave the way for future momentum."


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