Recently, the Trump administration announced an emergency waiver to allow Medicare beneficiaries to receive better medical care through telehealth appointments.
Under this new waiver, Medicare can pay for office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country, including in patient’s places of residence. Prior to this waiver, Medicare could only pay for telehealth on a limited basis: when the person receiving the service is in a designated rural area and when they leave their home and go to a clinic, hospital, or certain other types of medical facilities for the service. Now, a range of providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers, will be able to offer telehealth to their patients. Additionally, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is providing flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs.
According to a report by The Insight Partners, the telehealth market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 15.7% during the forecast period from 2018 to 2025. The market for telehealth is estimated to reach US$ 52,897.2 Mn in 2025.
Following the government’s wavier, many private insurers have also temporarily waived copays for such services. Industry players have started pressuring the government to expand the Medicare reimbursement permanently for telehealth services.
Experts suggest that while the temporary expansion of telehealth is appropriate in this crisis period, but its effect on overall healthcare system remains under question. Though is convenient, it can add to the health costs and there is no evidence that it will have improved medical outcomes.
The COVID19 pandemic has led to a boom in telehealth usage, as patients and physicians are using and preferring this model of care. It is assumed that the convenience of it will lead to the majority of them continue using the service. Experts also opine that this can completely displace the traditional in-person care system. It saves is very much time saving and offers flexibility in working hours for physicians.
There are also views that this suitability varies significantly as per the medical speciality. Surgery will need in-person treatments, but mental health therapies can be performed virtually. Data from digital stethoscopes and ultrasounds can be transmitted for remote monitoring and disease management of patients with chronic conditions.
Though there are benefits, the popularity of telehealth remains low. According to a survey 90 per cent employers planned to offer telehealth in 2016, but only 3 per cent of the employees eligible for it actually used the service. Experts blame the absence of Medicare reimbursement for such a slow adoption. In 2016, telehealth accounted for less than 0.5 per cent of Medicare spending on physician services.
There are also views on the service being ‘over convenient’ which might add to the costs but not change the medical scenario. Many would use the service and receive care for treatments that might otherwise not require a lot of attention.
On the positive side, it is only expected that the COVID-19 crisis will change the way patients and physicians view telemedicine and telehealth and can completely revolutionize the way in which care is delivered.