Although the COVID-19 pandemic put telehealth on fast forward, more than one third of patients in the United States engaged with telehealth services before February 2020, according to Ameet Doshi, MD, and Chrisanne Timpe, MD, of HealthPartners in Bloomington, Minn.
Broadly speaking, telehealth is “using virtual tools to evaluate, manage, and care for our patients, regardless of where they are located,” Dr. Doshi said during a May 6 session at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine.
The entirety of telehealth includes remote ways to meet almost any patient demand, he said. Some common health terms are used interchangeably, but some use telehealth as a broad term for electronic health care services, while telemedicine may refer specifically to remote patient care, he said.
Telemedicine allows flexibility of delivering patient care in inpatient, outpatient, or at-home settings, said Dr. Doshi. To illustrate the current application of telemedicine, he used an example of a 25-bed critical access hospital serving a growing regional population in which outpatient volume is expanding and ambulatory care services are being added. In this example, inpatient volume is growing, but not enough to support an inpatient consult service, but telehealth access to specialists such as cardiology would be useful in this case, he said.
Hospitalist telehealth means “being able to provide services to changing patient populations regardless of location; we can bring services to where patients are,” said Dr. Doshi.
Benefits of telehealth to patients include less travel and easier access to care, benefits to clinicians include expanding services at lower financial costs, he said.
COVID-19 challenges and opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities for telehealth, Dr. Doshi said. One opportunity was the sudden broad acceptance of virtual care out of necessity and concern for patient and staff safety, and to preserve the use of personal protective equipment, he said. In addition, a loosening of regulatory and financial pressures allowed more institutions to expand and initiate telehealth services.
Challenges included technological limitations and, in some cases, the need to develop a telehealth infrastructure from scratch, Dr. Doshi explained. Concerns also remain regarding how telehealth will evolve in the post-pandemic future, he said.
In the meantime, Medicare data show the impact of the pandemic on telehealth services, said Dr. Doshi. A telehealth waiver issued in March 2020 led to an increase in virtual encounters, and Medicare data show approximately 25 million virtual Medicare encounters between March 2020 and October 2020, representing a 3,000% increase from the same period in 2019, he said.
“Telehealth is here to stay, so the questions are how to craft a hospitalist telehealth program and provide essential patient care,” he said.
Dr. Timpe shared some examples of the evolution of telehealth care during the pandemic, including a case of an asymptomatic but frail patient with diabetes, dementia, and coronary artery disease undergoing outpatient care for a foot infection. The patient presented to an emergency department but refused to be hospitalized because of family concerns about patient isolation (no visitors were allowed at the time) and the concerns about COVID-19 infection.
The need to help treat acutely ill patients such as this patient while avoiding hospital admission during and after the pandemic continues to lead to the development of telehealth programs, Dr. Timpe said. She shared details of the [email protected] program developed by her organization, Health Partners. The program is designed to treat acutely ill people in the home, if possible, and avoid the need for hospital admission. Patients receive daily medical management from a hospitalist and care from staff, including registered nurses and community paramedics. Services include provision of IV medications and fluids, but the staff also conduct labs and imaging services, Dr. Timpe said.
Conditions that the program has managed at patients’ homes include pneumonia, COPD, asthma, bronchitis, flu, COVID-19, congestive heart failure, cellulitis, and urinary tract infections, said Dr. Timpe.
“We do not accept people into the program who have treatment needs that can only be met in a hospital,” such as the need for blood products, vasopressor support, telemetry, or positive pressure support, she noted.
Between November 2019 and February 15, 2021, the [email protected] program has provided services to 132 patients for a total of 287 visits. The program has averted 50 emergency department visits and 40 hospitalizations, and shorted hospital stays in 57 cases, she noted.
Hospitalists are suited for telehealth for several reasons, including the ability to triage acutely ill patients, familiarity with resource utilization, and expertise in management of complex medical care, said Dr. Timpe.
Dr. Doshi emphasized several ongoing issues regarding the future of telemedicine, primarily the need for standardized regulation and reimbursement; reduction of health equity disparity and attention to technological barriers (including access and technology literacy); and identification of the next frontiers in telehealth.
Research on the impact and effectiveness of telehealth is limited, but growing, and next frontiers might include making patients more active participants in telehealth via patient-operated kits, or the option of an open telemedicine marketplace, in which patients can select providers from across the country, he said. No matter where telehealth leads in the future, “we need to make sure we have a positive patient outcome,” he concluded.
Dr. Doshi and Dr. Timpe had no financial conflicts to disclose.