Telemedicine continues to make waves and to make the news. Many diverse groups have an interest in telemedicine, sometimes for very different reasons. For you, the consumer, the interest is obvious. How is telemedicine advancing and how is telemedicine relevant to you? Let’s take a look at some of the recent happenings in the world of telemedicine.
President Trump, while not always everyone’s favorite, seems to have come up “trumps” with his latest directive in helping to combat America’s growing opioid problem. He has effectively directed the HHS (Health & Human Services) to remove the embargo on prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine for patients with an opioid addiction. These substances include anti-addiction medicines such as naloxone. Three groups of patients will actually benefit from this important administrative change: those with addictions, children suffering from ADHD, and veterans with PTSD. These patients are all generally treated with a wide spectrum of controlled substances which, prior to this change in the law, were not able to be prescribed by telemedicine. Responding to the directive, the American Telemedicine Association’s President, Dr. Peter Yellowlees, observed: “Allowing physicians to prescribe controlled substances by telemedicine to treat patients with addictions, using medication assisted treatments, is a very positive move and one that will certainly help more patients to access high quality treatment.”
The Senate also recently passed the CHRONIC (Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic Care) Act. Designed to improve the health outcome for Medicare patients with chronic conditions, the bill includes many provisions for Medicare to broaden its usage of telemedicine and gives Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) more discretion in the use of telemedicine. Examples of these provisions include expanding the coverage of the remote diagnosis of a suspected stroke, and extending the geographical area where kidney dialysis patients can see their physician via a video call. A new provision is the Remote Patient Monitoring, which will particularly help older citizens suffering from chronic diseases. Medicare beneficiaries with one or more chronic conditions will have the choice to opt for monitoring at home, alongside their usual regular physician or specialist check-up. Another example of advances in telemedicine – this time aiding those who find any form of travel challenging.
The number of people benefiting from Medicare is expected to grow by 50% over the next 15 years. When you add in the fact that life expectancy will also increase, there will clearly be a growing demand for the monitoring and management of chronic illnesses. The more this can be achieved remotely, the less pressure there will be on an already over-burdened system. Sabrina Smith, interim Chief Executive Officer of the ATA, observed: “This is an important step in what ATA hopes will lead to additional federal action on telemedicine. We stand with those are committed to creating an accessible, responsive, and modern healthcare system.”
Medicare was again in the news recently when the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) released some new payment rules. As of the start of 2018, CMS will support all clinicians who provide remote monitoring tools – which include smart devices and wearables that can be used in the home – and who use patient-originated health data for the purposes of care management and co-ordination. Qualifying activities include sending medication reminders, collecting, monitoring, and reviewing patient physiological data and patient education. The initiative has been praised by the Connected Health Initiative (CHI). Executive Director, Morgan Reed, commented: “These new rules are an important step forward for America’s connected health innovators, doctors, and, most importantly, patients. CHI pushed for newly enacted rules that finally level the playing field for innovators, giving doctors and patients the chance to take advantage of the best technologies available.”
Elsewhere in recent telemedicine news, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs passed a bill that will allow veterans to be treated via telehealth no matter where they live. It’s part of a two-pronged effort to promote telemedicine services to veterans, particularly in rural areas. In a recent survey, almost 90% of veterans currently availing of telemedicine benefits said they were happy with the service they were getting. As the number of vets using telemedicine increases, so the number of hospital admissions decreases.
Early November saw a plea raised by a coalition of healthcare providers, schools, libraries, and health centers in relation to broadband expansion. The group is requesting that the House committee boosts the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Health Care (RHC) program, which is aimed at helping non-profit healthcare providers to access high-quality broadband connections in rural areas. They want the fund increased from $400 million annually to $800 million. Calling it a “life or death issue for rural America,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, stated in his letter to the House Energy & Commerce Committee: “Rural communities that encounter a severe shortage of doctors, aging populations, and a greater distance to medical experts are in dire need of easily accessible telemedicine services. The RHC program has the power to elevate the health of these communities, but only if the program is revamped to promote rural broadband.”
These are just some of the important issues surrounding telemedicine that are making waves at the moment. Talking about telemedicine and keeping it in the news will benefit us all in the long-term and, ideally, in the short-term too.