Medicare Needs To Set Policy To Drive Telehealth Interconnectivity
Imagine a world where you and I both have telephones, but our phones can’t connect with each other. How annoying would that be? Now imagine a world where my primary care physician has a telephone and my specialist has a telephone, but they can’t call each other to discuss how to deliver me the best possible care. That would certainly impact my health outcome.
While phone-to-phone connection was already possible in the early 20th century, the world of HIPAA-compliant remote video solutions is still stuck in the 19th century — they can’t (or won’t) interconnect. For telehealth to become a serious and effective future solution for healthcare delivery, beyond this current pandemic, interoperability is a must for the benefit of everyone involved.
Because of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged those who are able to stay home and shelter-in-place to reduce the risk of transmission. They are also recommending various measures to reduce noncritical healthcare visits in order to prevent exposure between patients and frontline healthcare workers, and to reserve important space for those in urgent need of hospital beds. One of these recommended measures is the use of telehealth solutions.
The Importance of Telehealth
Telehealth, defined as virtual communication via secure video or audio chat software between patient and provider, allows noncritical healthcare delivery via remote consults — keeping both patient and provider at a safe distance.
Telehealth solutions are more important and more prevalent than ever before, with the number of patients reporting intent to try telehealth methods jumping from 17% to 30% between February and March of 2020.
As of early March of this year, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is even waiving all telehealth reimbursement fees and restrictions, and considering telemedicine visits on the same footing as in-person visits, at least for the time being.
While more and more people become accustomed to the idea of telehealth and virtual care as a possible (and preferable) way to get their healthcare delivered, the likelihood of a permanent shift toward telehealth solutions post-pandemic increases.
With healthcare providers scrambling to meet this new wave of virtual healthcare needs and come up with ways to conduct remote consults and see patients via video, or through chatting on apps, a way to streamline the process (and the results) seems necessary. During this current health crisis, we’ve certainly seen how telemedicine should become a permanent fixture in modern healthcare, but the lack of interconnectivity is concerning.
Most vendors’ business strategy is: keep clients on your own solution. Keep your solution in a silo. Don’t create a connected network with other solutions and other healthcare providers. Extend your contract length — no matter what.
This may be a good outcome for certain businesses financially (especially as these vendors can charge you for bolt-on proprietary hardware and specialists that they employ), but this way of thinking is bad for health systems, care providers, and most of all, patients who need easy access to a quality ecosystem of care without barriers.
What Patients Value
Patients looking for virtual healthcare are placing value on privacy, authenticity, ease of use, and accessibility. They want to be sure that their information is secure under the same HIPAA regulations that apply to in-office visits, they want to make sure the information they’re receiving is legitimate, and they want an experience that is simple to access, without having to jump through several hoops, downloads, and registrations.
Even though the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has temporarily relaxed HIPAA and privacy standards in order for telecommunication to be done via common social apps such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facebook messenger video, privacy concerns surrounding these non-medical grade apps are obviously a large issue.
A standardized telehealth system would integrate approved programs into routine care as well as document compliance with HIPAA guidelines and patient privacy laws, and state and federal regulations.
With WebRTC providing real-time communication capabilities to apps and sites and becoming the de facto video IP standard, all providers should be adopting at least one common standard for the benefit of everyone.
In order to create far-reaching and high-quality telemedicine platforms and solutions that meet everyone’s goals, collaboration between government, policy advocates, healthcare systems and providers, as well as patients is key. Elements of telehealth including payment models, process, workflows, interface standards, and performance reporting should all be streamlined for interoperability success. Once interoperability is achieved, we’ll see continued improvements on cost, quality, and access — essential patient values.
However, with no top-down directive from Medicare, National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the government, commerce will simply not let that happen. Even if this standard were universally adopted, most vendors would continue to create siloed deployments that won’t cross-communicate because of personal and financial interests.
Healthcare Companies Doing it Right
Healthcare companies such as Bluestream Health offer virtual solutions that are ready for interconnectivity and are built for healthcare networks and facilities. Bluestream Health has already rolled out their HIPAA-compliant telemedicine platform to over 500 health facilities and 25 health providers across the country. All providers need to do is enter their name and email address, and then they can send an email or text invitation to patients. They offer the best in video connectivity without any downloads or registrations.
Bluestream’s easy-to-employ virtual solution allows networks and providers to quickly integrate their software with their existing clinical workflows and deliver consults almost immediately. Find out more about their networked and flexible platform, and get in touch with any questions today.
Medicare reimbursement for virtual visits should only be available to systems that allow care providers to access and communicate with each other through an interconnected and standardized ecosystem. One simple rule; one big outcome. After that, every telehealth system would communicate and ensure that quality virtual care is accessible to everyone.
The best solutions would prosper, and the worst would fade (or black-screen) away.