Telehealth has emerged as an essential component of healthcare during the COVID-19 crisis. In a wide-ranging discussion, a panel of experts discussed the current benefits and ongoing challenges of this technology, as well as its potential impact on patients and practices in the years to come.
“It’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there’s absolutely no going back,” said the moderator of the discussion, Rick Lee, Executive Chairman, Healthy Platforms and CancerLife, as he referred to the speed with which patients and providers have embraced telemedicine. He provided a summary of the changes that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic, including decisions by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that have allowed expanded use of telehealth services. These changes have led to a significant increase in the number of telehealth visits that have occurred, contributing to the widespread acceptance of this modality.
Although telemedicine is now widely accepted, there are certain complexities related to administration and practice that must be appropriately managed for continued success.
“Having regulatory experience is imperative, in particular during this time when things are very fast-moving and fast-paced and we’re seeing changes in CMS rules and regulations almost biweekly,” said Chevon Rariy, MD, Director, Telehealth, Cancer Treatment Centers of America. In particular, “medical records maintenance is key” when deploying a telehealth program that is embedded within a larger healthcare system, he noted.
Brian Leyland-Jones, MD, Chief Medical Officer, National Foundation for Cancer Research, pointed out that in the delivery of specialized healthcare in a rural environment, where patients were required to travel up to 500 miles to a clinic, systems were already in place and functioning well. “We have all adjusted so rapidly,” he said.
During the discussion, the experts also considered the ways in which telehealth services can be used to address patient needs beyond the immediate impact of the coronavirus. For example, the use of telehealth services for patients with illnesses other than cancer is a potential area of expansion. It is already being used in some programs to mitigate loneliness among patients whose illness or geography results in social distancing that is not solely pandemic-related. “Loneliness is disease agnostic,” Karen Keown, RN, Co-Founder, Vida Healthcare, said, referring to these patients.
The panelists also explored how telemedicine could potentially affect clinical trials and other multidisciplinary applications. “There is a concern that they cannot get enough patients into clinical trials and it’s hurting research. And then there’s the retention aspect.” Rethinking protocols could have a positive impact on areas of research going forward, said Bob Gold, Chief Behavioral Technologist and CEO, GoMo Health.
Although proposed expansions in telemedicine show promise, none are without drawbacks. One crucial factor is the extent to which payers would be open to covering these services.
Webcast host Burt Zweigenhaft, PhD, D.Litt, Founder, Association for Value-Based Cancer Care, acknowledged that it may be more complex in a post–COVID-19 environment. “I’m hoping that the combination of government, private enterprise, and providers will be the solution,” he said.