Federal officials on a rural health webinar applauded the federal government's efforts to expand telehealth during the coronavirus pandemic, and predicted its uptick will continue long after the crisis is over.
Rural Health Information Hub graphic
"I can tell you from personal experience that we are never going back," said Dr. Jeff Colyer, a surgeon who chairs the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. "I've seen the majority of my patients via telehealth, and they like the convenience and the access that it gives them. And so we are going to see those changes continue on in the future."
Bette Brand, deputy undersecretary for Rural Development in the Department of Agriculture, said, "The coronavirus has made the need for telehealth even more urgent. Its life-saving convenience is now underscored by its lifesaving ability to limit travel and unnecessary exposure."
USDA has invested more than $751 million on its program to bring broadband to the 21 million Americans who lack high-speed internet access, 80 percent of whom are in rural areas, Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky said. He added that broadband is especially important as people are being asked to socially distance, and lets Americans "continue to access critical medical services remotely using telemedicine from their homes."
Censky pointed to a USDA summary of recent changes to the program by the Department of Health and Human Services. Deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan called the changes "historic" and said they include, among other things, eliminating some barriers to Medicare reimbursement, enabling waivers or reductions of cost sharing, and allowing the use of everyday technologies, like FaceTime and Skype, in health care.
"In just about a month and a half, I think we've seen about seven or eight years worth of progress on telehealth," Hargan said. "Really, it's a revolution provoked by necessity. I'm excited to see what the future looks like based on getting patients and providers acclimated to the idea of telehealth in this way," he said. "What sounds to many like dry, obscure flexibilities in regulations and reimbursement is translating into millions of Americans getting access to healthcare more safely."
Tom Morris, associate HHS administrator for rural health, said telehealth resource centers have seen a tremendous increase in use: "You would not believe the volume increase that they have had. . . . The increase in their volume was well more than 1,000 percent of this time a year ago. And so the funding will better help them respond to that moving forward."
The webinar was sponsored by the Rural Health Information Hub. Click here to learn more about Kentucky's telehealth program.
Two analysts and a fellow at the Brookings Institution came to many of the same conclusions after taking a detailed look at telehealth regulations and recent changes. They write:
Telehealth has proven itself a viable supplement to an already strained health-care system, where both medical providers and patients are seeking timely, effective, and robust tools for early detection, primary care, and long-term evaluation. While progress was being made before the coronavirus outbreak to adopt telehealth in states, the pandemic not only demonstrated its worth but also proved it necessary to avert larger meltdowns in hospital systems and among medical professionals—even those whose work was stopped due to social distancing.
The world will probably not return to the normalcy it once experienced before covid-19—and neither should health care. As Congress is charged with re-evaluating the leniencies permitted to health-care providers during this crisis, federal lawmakers should also see the benefits. The same holds true for states that will need to reconsider lifting boundaries on telehealth services to accelerate its transformational capabilities for patients and doctors.