Changes from COVID-19 have created a healthcare environment where telehealth – an in particular teleradiology – will be a permanent fixture.
A small silver lining of this global pandemic may be the realization that we do not always need to take a full day off work to head to the doctor’s office. The concept of telehealth has existed for several years now but was rarely a reality. In fact, I cannot recall a single physician of mine that offered telehealth as an alternative to appointments prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, many physicians are more than willing to conduct telehealth visits for minor aches and pains, routine check-ins, an initial screening, or even a second opinion. Not only has the increase in telehealth been beneficial for busy patients (who are often managing both work and children at home) but also for physicians who find themselves in far less crowded offices.
In a new report from GlobalData, more than 79 percent of specialists surveyed said that their use of telemedicine has increased since the pandemic began. Many also said that they would continue to use virtual services in the future. The increased use of telemedicine was made possible by several key legislation changes. The U.S. Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights announced that it will, “not impose penalties for non-compliance with the regulatory requirements under the HIPAA Rules against covered healthcare providers in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency." Additionally, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded its Medicare telehealth coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resulted in nearly $4 billion billed for telehealth services during March and April of 2020.
Telehealth has been a long time coming. Physicians have sought creative ways to reduce the number of patients entering and exiting facilities, including imaging centers, for years, testing a number of different methods. For example, researchers in Canada followed patients in 2017-2018 and studied whether an electronic consultation between radiologists and referring physicians could lower unnecessary imaging exams. Positive care improvements were seen with the use of this program. Unnecessary imaging went down and in more than 55 percent of cases, imaging that was still recommended altered patient care plans for the better.
Radiology as a specialty has always been at the forefront of telemedicine with teleradiology work being commonplace for over a decade. Radiologists are often able to work securely from home and offer tele-consults with patients who may have additional questions regarding findings. At New York University Langone, about 25 percent of radiologists read from home. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 70 percent.
However, both patients and physicians should not dismiss the need for in-person care when appropriate. For example, since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a decline in abdominal CTs leading to poorer prognosis for patients.
The post-COVID world will need to establish a critical balance between appropriate telehealth usage and in-person visits, imaging exams, and procedures. Could artificial intelligence play a role in determining usage? Advanced symptom-based algorithms may be one such future tool that aid in differentiating between the necessity for telehealth or in-person care. In addition, wearable technology may be another tool that appropriately flags the need for increased intervention.
Our world is forever changed but what is clear is that telemedicine is here to stay, and facilities should build their strategies in anticipation. Organizations should examine their needs as a whole and avoid building a piecemeal approach to their telehealth strategy. Facilities scrambled to put into place whatever program was needed for initial needs. But, for telehealth to succeed in the long term, a truly robust and comprehensive strategy will be needed. If budgetary constraints are an issue for your facility, consider choosing a platform that could scale up at a later time.
Training for the entire team ranging from administrative support to physicians, and even patients, is also a necessity for long-term program success. A comprehensive approach is one that touches on each part of the healthcare trajectory and takes the patient on the best path possible for an ideal outcome.