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Telehealth seen as a key tool to help fight COVID-19


 

Are healthcare systems prepared?

Some large healthcare systems such as Stanford, MedStar, and Intermountain are already using telehealth to diagnose and treat patients who have traditional influenza. Telehealth providers at Stanford estimate that almost 50% of these patients are being prescribed the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

It’s unclear whether other healthcare systems are this well prepared to offer telehealth on a large scale. But, according to an AHA survey, Kvedar noted, three quarters of AHA members are engaged in some form of telehealth.

Drobac said “it wouldn’t require too much effort” to ramp up a wide-scale telehealth program that could help reduce the impact of the outbreak. “The technology is there,” she noted. “You need a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform, but there are so many out there.”

Kvedar agreed. To begin with, he said, hospitals might sequester patients who visit the ED with COVID-19 symptoms in a video-equipped “isolation room.” Staff members could then do the patient intake from a different location in the hospital.

He admitted that this approach would be infeasible if a lot of patients arrived in EDs with coronavirus symptoms. However, Kvedar noted, “All the tools are in place to go well beyond that. American Well, Teladoc, and others are all offering ways to get out in front of this. There are plenty of vendors out there, and most people have a connected cell phone that you can do a video call on.”

Hospital leaders would have to decide whether to embrace telehealth, which would mean less use of services in their institutions, he said. “But it would be for the greater good of the public.”

Kvedar recalled that there was some use of telehealth in the New York area after 9/11. Telehealth was also used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the ATA president, who is also vice president of connected health at Partners HealthCare in Boston, noted that the COVID-19 outbreak is the first public health emergency to occur in the era of Skype and smartphones.

If Congress does ultimately authorize CMS to cover telehealth across the board during this emergency, might that lead to a permanent change in Medicare coverage policy? Kvedar wouldn’t venture an opinion. “However, the current CMS leadership has been incredibly telehealth friendly,” he said. “So it’s possible they would [embrace a lifting of restrictions]. As patients get a sense of this modality of care and how convenient it is for them, they’ll start asking for more.”

Meanwhile, he said, the telehealth opportunity goes beyond video visits with doctors to mitigate the outbreak. Telehealth data could also be used to track disease spread, similar to how researchers have studied Google searches to predict the spread of the flu, he noted.

Teladoc, a major telehealth vendor, recently told stock analysts it’s already working with the CDC on disease surveillance, according to a report in FierceHealthcare.

This article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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