On Jan. 20, 2020, the first confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States was admitted to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash. Less than 3 months later, the COVID-19 pandemic has put enormous stress on the U.S. health care system, which is confronting acute resource shortage because of the surge of acute and critically ill patients, health care provider safety and burnout, and an ongoing need for managing vulnerable populations while minimizing the infection spread.
With the onset of these unprecedented challenges, telehealth has emerged as a powerful new resource for health care providers, hospitals, and health care systems across the country. This article offers a summary of government regulations that enabled telehealth expansion, and provides an overview of how two health care organizations, Providence St. Joseph Health and Sound Physicians, are employing telehealth services to combat the COVID-19 health care crisis.
The government response: Telehealth expansion
In response to the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have significantly increased access to telehealth services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. CMS swiftly put measures in place such as:
- Expanding telehealth beyond rural areas.
- Adding 80 services that can be provided in all settings, including patient homes
- Allowing providers to bill for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also aided this effort by:
- Waiving requirements that physicians or other health care professionals must have licenses in the state in which they provide services, if they have an equivalent license from another state.
- Waving penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients in good faith through everyday communications technologies, such as FaceTime or Skype
Without prior regulatory and reimbursement restrictions, telehealth rapidly became a powerful tool in helping to solve some of the problems brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providence Telehealth for COVID-19
Providence St. Joseph Health is a not-for-profit health care system operating 51 hospitals and 1,085 clinics across Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Providence has developed an enterprise telemedicine network with more than 100 virtual programs. Several of these services – including Telestroke, Telepsychiatry, TeleICU, and Telehospitalist – have been scaled across several states as a clinical cloud. More than 400 telemedicine endpoints are deployed, such as robotic carts and fixed InTouch TVs. In fact, the first U.S. COVID-19 patient was treated at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., using the telemedical robotfrom InTouch Health.
According to, chief medical technology officer at Providence, “while telehealth has been around for many years, COVID-19 opened a lot of people’s eyes to the value of virtual care delivery.”
Providence’s telehealth response to COVID-19 has encompassed five main areas: COVID-19 home care, COVID-19 acute care, ambulatory virtual visits, behavioral health concierge (BHC) expansion, and additional support for outside partnerships.