COVID-19 Pushes Telehealth to The Forefront

As the Coronavirus continues to devastate the nation’s healthcare system, people who have succumbed to the illness are overwhelming US hospitals. A shortage of medical supplies, beds and healthcare workers intensifies the problem.

In response, federal officials are pushing doctors to screen patients virtually before admitting them for testing. In an $8.3 million-dollar bill funding the nation’s response to COVID-19, the regulations usually restricting virtual screening for those on Medicare have been waived by the Government, opening the doors for the elderly population to be virtually screened for COVID-19.

According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the elderly population makes up 31% of documented cases, 45% of hospitalizations and 80% of deaths.

New York houses 6% of the world’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. John Hopkins University confirmed 69,120 cases of coronavirus across the United States and 1,045 deaths, as of March 26, 2020, with cases increasing daily. (For the latest counts, view this global map).

To address the situation, New York City is establishing emergency hospitals, graduating medical students early, and calling healthcare workers out of retirement.

The American Telehealth Association, together with other groups, such as the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, the eHealth Initiative, Health Innovation Alliance and Personal Connected Health Alliance, celebrated Congress’ push for Telehealth, noting that ‘virtual care solutions can expand access to care and enable timely treatment’.

While some smaller practices are employing telehealth services, other healthcare providers are using make-shift triage tents and drive through sampling stations in store parking lots.

Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, is currently testing an online self-screening system. However, within hours of roll-out, the test site reached capacity.

The Benefits of Virtual Screening

There are many benefits of telehealth, in addition to virtual screening for COVID-19:

1. Regular appointments can go virtual

Patients who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 do not want to visit the hospital for their regular check-ups because they could expose themselves or others unknowingly to COVID-19.

Using virtual care for these appointments not only protects patients who may not have COVID-19 and keeps patients home who are asymptomatic spreaders, but it also frees up medical staff to tend to those who are exhibiting symptoms.

2. Follow up care can be completed virtually

For those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and sent home for self-care, telehealth can aid in recovery by giving patients an opportunity to check in with their care team virtually.

3. Virtual care increases medical distancing

As virtual care aides in social distancing, it also helps doctors to distance themselves from their infected patients, implementing medical distancing among healthcare workers.

4. Decreased demand for medical supplies

Increased use of telehealth services can alleviate the issues with medical supplies. Masks and other protective equipment will not be needed in such a high capacity.

The Future of Telehealth

The National Emergency Declaration and the emergency funding package have removed barriers to virtual care. Regulations that limited payments for telehealth visits or blocked video chat platforms, such as Facetime, have been temporarily lifted. Privacy concerns are being nullified for the time being.

Telehealth supporters believe the push for virtual care during this crisis could be the moment they’ve been waiting for, as the coronavirus has removed a lot of restrictions for the telehealth industry. If it goes well, it could aid a larger movement for long-term changes, including the passage of The CONNECT Act. After the pandemic subsides, the Telehealth push could establish a new norm in medicine.