Telehealth has been a growing point of emphasis in U.S. health care discourse, as health care providers look to leverage interconnectivity to treat patients from a distance and legislators seek new ways to improve care. In the past year, new state and federal regulations have cleared the way for telehealth programs —which combine telemedicine and online pharmacies to both prescribe and dispense treatment to patients remotely — to thrive in a variety of settings. With improving reimbursement, the clearing of hurdles for crossing state lines, and increased interest from both health care professionals and patients, it’s clear that telehealth will only continue to grow.
Here are five critical events and developments from the past year that have accelerated — and will continue to promote — the growth of telehealth programs:
- VETS Act of 2017: The House passed this bill (H.R. 2123, Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act of 2017) to permit physicians and other providers who meet the definition of “covered health care professionals” to administer services via telehealth with a single medical license, regardless of where the physician or patient resides. The legislation also requires the VA Secretary to deliver a report to the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs outlining the overarching effectiveness of telehealth services.
- Expended Reimbursement: The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) final rule increases access to Medicare telehealth services, especially for patients in rural or underserved areas, by paying for more such consults and making it easier for providers to bill for them. The MACRA rule will also enable greater use of remote patient monitoring tools and encourage physicians to do more with patient-generated health data.
- Disaster Relief: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma shined a spotlight on the value of telehealth during a natural disaster. In the wake of both natural disasters, telehealth system LiveHealth Online stepped in to provide free help patients. It is currently available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in 48 states. LiveHealth Online also offered free access to counselors and therapists via online video visits and phone sessions for the victims, families, first responders and any others impacted by the tragic mass-shooting in Las Vegas.
- Employer Engagement: Employer-based telemedicine programs overall are growing. An August 2017 survey from the National Business Group on Health, in fact, found that telehealth offerings by employers are nearly universal, and employees who take advantage of these programs require fewer visits to emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and physicians’ offices. Virtually all employers (96 percent) will make telehealth services available in states where it is allowed next year. More than half (56 percent) plan to offer telehealth for behavioral health services, more than double the percentage this year. Telehealth utilization is clearly on the rise, with nearly 20 percent of employers experiencing employee utilization rates of 8 percent or higher.
- State Buy-In: Numerous state laws have also addressed telemedicine issues. Texas passed a bill to improve patient outcomes by using telemedicine technology to bring trauma surgeons into the back of ambulances to assess and direct treatment. Twenty-two state Medicaid programs provide reimbursement for remote patient monitoring, up from three states in August 2016. An increasing number of states are also passing legislation directing health care professional boards to adopt practice standards for its providers who utilize telehealth.
Moving forward, increased demand for self-care and remote monitoring will continue to drive telehealth growth. Likewise, government initiatives will continue to play a large role in paving the way for further expansion of telehealth and telemedicine usage in U.S. health care.