Telehealth is Redefining Health Care—for Patients, Prescribers, and Drug Makers Alike

The face of health care looks very different these days. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic came the need for social distancing, which meant that, for all but the most urgent cases, face-to-face visits between patients and physicians were no longer possible.

Enter the rise of telehealth (or telemedicine, depending on your preference; we’ll touch on the distinction below).

Telehealth technologies have been a staple of the medical community for years, but the coronavirus crisis has boosted their usage industry-wide in ways that simply could not have been predicted. Nearly half of all doctors are now using telehealth to treat patients, up from just 18 percent two years ago, according to a recent survey of American physicians.

The rise of telehealth adoption by both providers and patients has triggered changes in everything from regulatory compliance, privacy & security, reimbursement policies, and insurance coverage. The efficiencies and access made possible by the acceptance of telehealth technologies are akin to those in the new stay-at-home, Zoom-powered workforce.

Both developments are likely to change the way the world operates post-COVID-19. The question is, how? And what do these changes mean for pharmaceutical manufacturers? In what follows, we’ll take a look at the answers to these questions and more, starting with the most basic.

What is Telehealth?

So, what exactly do we mean by telehealth? And how is it different than telemedicine? The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as follows:

The use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.

Telehealth is different than telemedicine in that the former refers to a broader scope of remote healthcare services. Telemedicine refers specifically to clinical services provided remotely, while telehealth includes non-clinical services like provider training, administrative meetings, and continuing medical education.

The Rise of Telehealth in the COVID-19 Crisis

The need for telehealth technologies quickly became evident as social distancing guidelines arose in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The World Economic Forum called telehealth a “game-changer” for safely delivering much-needed clinical care during the pandemic.

The Health & Human Services Office for Civil Rights went on to issue guidance that made HIPAA regulations more flexible when it came to telehealth, saying “HIPAA-covered health care providers may, in good faith, provide telehealth services to patients using remote communication technologies…even if the application does not fully comply with HIPAA rules.”

Telehealth is helping medical systems and private practices alike respond to increases in patient flow and demands for testing, as well as the limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Virtual triage via telehealth technology means that only the sickest patients actually visit a hospital or clinic. Fewer in-person patient visits means fewer needs for providers to change their PPEs.

Additionally, providers are experiencing unprecedented levels of physician burnout and are embracing telehealth as a way to more effectively manage their on-call availability and balance their lifestyle.

Telehealth is helping medical systems and private practices alike respond to increases in patient flow and demands for testing, as well as the limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Whether through video or audio visits, providers are able to address a number of patient concerns using telehealth technology. This limits the number of patients that physicians physically interact with, while also reducing the exposure of patients themselves to other patients and facility equipment, greatly reducing the risk of exposure to coronavirus for all parties involved.

Telehealth has also proven instrumental in managing those who are concerned they might have contracted COVID-19 but are asymptomatic and seeking testing for the disease.

Rather than physically visiting a clinic or hospital and risking exposure to the novel coronavirus, asymptomatic patients (which are conservatively estimated to be up to 30% of the population) can speak to a health care provider via videoconference or by phone to arrange for testing.

A quick call with their provider is often enough to reassure patients that they are healthy and safe, and also represents an ideal opportunity for providers to remind patients about important preventive measures like handwashing, mask-wearing, and social distancing.

Public and Private Insurers Expanding Telehealth Coverage

In addition to making HIPAA regulations more flexible, the federal government has loosened requirements on e-prescribing of controlled substances, and opened up Medicare restrictions on telehealth as well. Both Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP) were expanded to include broader coverage for telehealth services.

In April, the Trump Administration released a toolkit providing states with issues to consider as they expand their telehealth capabilities and coverage policies. Many state governments have expanded telehealth in their Medicaid programs and relaxed restrictions around provider licensing, online prescribing, and written consent.

Many states are also requiring private insurance plans to cover and reimburse for telemedicine services in the same way they would in-person care.

Even where not mandated by states, several major health insurance companies have voluntarily expanded telehealth coverage, including more services, patient locations (e.g. home) and modalities (e.g. phone). Other insurers are reducing or eliminating cost sharing for telemedicine; for some plans this applies only to COVID-19-related visits, while for others it applies to any health indication.

To make these services more accessible, some insurers are increasing the numbers of in-network telehealth providers, while others are contracting with telehealth vendors.

The Intersection of Telehealth and Digital Health

A successful patient visit to the providers office is dependent upon the measurement of vital signs and, in some cases, tests being conducted. The effectiveness and quality of care provided via telehealth also depends on these critical in-office tasks.

Rivaling the explosion of telehealth, digital health is experiencing its own dramatic growth in its ability to enable remote monitoring and testing. Real-time blood pressure readings, glucose measurement, medication compliance, weight, and cardiovascular performance can now be captured on both wearables and in-home devices.

Increasingly telehealth services are offering integrations into digital health, thereby enabling more timely and efficient quality care.

Telehealth and 5G

If the coronavirus pandemic has been the catalyst to jumpstarting adoption of telehealth technologies, 5G will be the fuel that catapults it into the future.

Critical to any telehealth technology is a network that can support high-quality video in real time. To date, this has mostly meant wired networks. The coming 5G revolution, which promises mobile data speeds that far outperform the fastest home broadband currently available to consumers, will mean that telehealth can be delivered anywhere to anyone.

5G will mean that patients can be treated sooner and get access to specialists currently not available to them. It will also allow doctors and other staff members to collaborate more efficiently.

According to a recent op-ed co-authored by the president of the New York State healthcare association and president of the New York State Medical Society:

“5G…will not only advance telemedicine — it will transform the future delivery of healthcare and every aspect of modern life, from basic interpersonal and business communication to transportation, economic development and education.”

With 5G, patients will be able to use a wide array of devices at home to real-time data to their physicians, including blood pressure, weight, glucose levels, and more. Physicians, in turn, will be able to quickly and securely download and transfer large data files like X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, reducing wait times and allowing for the delivery of faster, more comprehensive patient care.

5G will also make emergency medicine more effective and efficient, saving countless lives in the process. First responders will be able to pinpoint locations more quickly and communicate optimal treatment to hospital staff via video conferencing during transit, significantly improving emergency room outcomes.

Telehealth and Direct-to-Patient

For pharmaceutical manufacturers looking to streamline the supply chain and reach patients directly, telehealth is a valuable tool.

Direct-to-patient (DTP) channels leverage e-commerce technology, anticipatory pharmacy services, and fulfillment solutions that include innovative final-mile technology. Add e-prescribing services to the front of this solution and patients can get the brand medication of their choice delivered direct to their doorstep without ever having to leave home.

When telehealth services are built into an e-commerce DTP channel, patients have the option of being seen by a physician as a seamless part of their visit to a pharmaceutical brand’s website.

Via embedded videoconferencing technology, a physician can diagnose the patient after a brief consult and prescribe the medication they need all within the same online experience. A short registration and purchase sequence later and the patient need only wait for the product to be delivered to their home.

For patients, prescribers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers alike, the future of medicine is telehealth. Now that it has redefined health care in the COVID-19 age, bolstered by digital health and 5G technology, telehealth is poised to bring manufacturers closer to patients in ways previously thought unimaginable.

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