Loosening telemedicine restrictions was the right call. Let’s make it permanent.
Tom Romeo is a Program Officer at Stand Together and holds a master’s in public health from the University of Arizona.
As COVID-19 began to spread, one of the first steps taken by the U.S. government was to loosen restrictions on telemedicine. These actions were taken because telemedicine provides medical care to a patient regardless of where they are physically. This increases access to care for millions of Americans, while maintaining an effective social distance that mitigates person-to-person transmission.
Telemedicine is helpful for patients who, despite shelter in place orders, still need to be seen by a health care provider. It is also vital in the screening and treatment of COVID-19 itself. Telehealth services provide an available and desperately needed way to reduce transmission risk by using software to remotely enable patient diagnosis, referral, and treatment. Safe distancing reduces the overall strain to our healthcare system by providing quality care to people, while shielding both them and health care providers from unnecessary hazard.
The roots of telemedicine can be traced back to ancient times when smoke signals communicated health conditions. More recently, NASA was instrumental in helping develop telemedicine to monitor and treat health conditions of the astronauts. Telemedicine has been available for decades, but antiquated policies have kept it from being utilized to its full potential.
Telemedicine provides prompt answers for patients that could take weeks to get in the traditional appointment setting. The streamlined model of telemedicine saves time and in a pandemic time is of the essence.
Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have been urging hospitals and healthcare providers to increase such services. Here in the U.S., elected officials also view telemedicine as an important part of the solution. Congress recently passed a bipartisan bill that loosened the Medicare-only barrier to telemedicine use, thus enhancing accessibility for senior citizens.
Many tout concerns over quality of remote care compared to in-person visits, but research has shown that telemedicine services typically cost less and allow individuals to be treated based on their specific needs. We’ve seen this form of care leading to comparable and often better health outcomes.
Policies that dictate where a patient can be located for a telemedicine visit have prevented individuals from getting access to care in their own homes. This restriction is problematic during shelter-in place guidelines for obvious reasons.
Some regulations prescribe which technology can be used in telemedicine often excluding e-mail, SMS text messaging and FaceTime. Other government regulations allow only for real-time streaming telemedicine. This prevents patients from sending providers pictures or other health data points outside of a real-time appointment. All of these regulations either slow the treatment process or prevent it all together for some populations.
While lifting these restrictions temporarily will help telemedicine combat the current pandemic, an obvious question is evoked. Why should those restrictions exist in the first place?
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inadequacies in our health care system have become more obvious than ever before. Telemedicine provides an incredible opportunity to keep medical providers and patients out of harm’s way. We should encourage, not hinder, the services of companies that are making it easier for patients to receive medical care and prescriptions online. Lives depend on it.