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What’s the Future of Telehealth Access?

Will Americans continue to have telehealth options as the country moves further past the COVID-19 pandemic? 

A new paper from Patient and Provider Advocates for Telehealth outlines the policy changes that would continue appropriate access to telehealth and help close health care gaps across the country.  

The Telehealth Option 

In the past three years, telehealth use has increased rapidly. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data, for example, show a 6,300% increase in Medicare virtual visits between 2019 and 2020.  

Having telehealth as an option in addition to in-person care was possible because technology, government regulations and insurance policies all pivoted to meet the changing needs of patients and providers. But some measures are now reverting to pre-pandemic norms.  

Future Opportunities for Telehealth 

Telehealth, used appropriately, can support many different communities, even outside of protection from COVID-19. These may include: 

  • Older patients, for whom telehealth can help overcome mobility issues.
  • Rural patients, who can see specialists and other health care providers without traveling long distances.   
  • Communities of color, for whom telehealth can help address health disparities in care. 
  • People with mental health conditions, who can avoid the stigma and social anxiety that accompanies treatment by seeing a mental health provider virtually when appropriate.  

Removing Barriers to Telehealth 

Policymakers can help patients get care that’s tailored to them by expanding access to telehealth, the paper explains. New legislation would need to include the following reforms: 

  • Broadband access: Improving broadband access nationwide allows rural and underserved patients to schedule and attend virtual appointments.
  • Interstate licensure: Easing licensure restrictions allows health care providers to reach patients in locations with shortages.  
  • Site-of-care stipulations: Patients and physicians must be able to participate in virtual visits from any private location.  
  • Fair reimbursement for virtual visits: Insurance reimbursement must allow health care providers and patients to work together on selecting the appropriate type of visit – either virtual or in person – for each patient.  

Balancing Telehealth and In-Person Care 

Telehealth allows patients to receive the care they need without having to take time off work, obtain childcare, or lose time commuting to and from their clinician’s office. Telehealth is not, however, intended as a wholesale replacement of in-person care. In many situations, providers need to perform physical exams or even full body observations to diagnose. In-person medical visits can also promote a personal connection between patient and provider, encouraging adherence to the treatment plan.  

Policies should, the paper concludes, allow for a balanced approach that leaves individual care decisions to patients and their health care providers. To learn more, read “Navigating the Future of Telehealth Access.”