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Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused us all to rethink the day-to-day activities we once took for granted, telemedicine was in its infancy. Providers were certainly interested in using vastly improved digital tools to treat their patients more efficiently. However, several complicated factors prevented widespread adoption of the service. That all changed as COVID-19 began spreading within the U.S. 

To accommodate physical distancing guidelines and expand provider capacity, the U.S. government made several critical regulatory changes and helped boost telehealth delivery. Today, providers are deploying these services faster than ever, and experts believe this trend will continue even as the pandemic wanes.  

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is a general term that describes the remote delivery of healthcare services using technology for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Insurers narrow their definition of telemedicine to technology like remote patient monitoring and live videoconference visits. 

Telehealth is often used interchangeably with telemedicine and includes a broader scope of services like phone calls, text messages, emails, alongside more advanced digital tools. 

Telemedicine Usage Pre-COVID-19

Before COVID-19, telemedicine use outside of managed care groups was minimal for several different reasons. High startup costs, lack of clinician buy-in, and inconsistencies in coverage policies all prevented telehealth services from breaking into the mainstream. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), for example, only reimbursed providers for telehealth visits if the beneficiary lived in certain underserved rural areas. 

A study conducted by the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker analyzed health benefit claims and found that among enrollees in large employer health plans, only 2.4% utilized at least one telehealth service in 2018. Absent the shock COVID-19 delivered to the healthcare system, these low adoption rates could have remained the norm for years to come. 

Changes in Telemedicine Regulations Spur Wider Adoption 

As the full scope of the pandemic became clear, government regulators made several significant changes to telehealth regulations. This more permissive playing field allowed providers to limit their exposure to the disease by conducting remote COVID-19 screenings and continue treating run-of-the-mill illnesses while respecting social distancing guidelines. CMS led the way with several critical federal changes, including:

  • Loosening Privacy Restriction: CMS temporarily loosened HIPAA restrictions to include everyday communication technologies like FaceTime and Skype. This allowed providers to use more accessible tools with a lower cost of entry to establish a telemedicine presence quickly.
  • Telehealth Prescriptions: For the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, DEA-registered providers can use telemedicine to issue prescriptions for controlled substances without an in-person visit. 
  • Expanded Reimbursement: New CMS rules now pay providers the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person visits. For many providers, this change makes telehealth financially viable for the first time.

Most state regulators and private insurers followed CMS’ lead, and, suddenly, the telehealth floodgates opened.  

Recent Telemedicine Growth

As people around the world stayed in their homes out of fear of infection, telemedicine usage surged. In China, where the virus originated, the telehealth platform JD Health saw a tenfold increase in usage during the outbreak. Here in the states, a recent survey found that 23% of adults have used telehealth services in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Another report predicts the U.S. telehealth market will reach $10 billion in revenue by the year’s end, with an 80% year-over-year increase. 

Potential for Continued Growth

While many of these changes were intended to be only temporary, many experts believe they will endure now that patients have seen how convenient telemedicine can be. What’s more, many large health systems have invested heavily in telehealth infrastructure to meet the sudden demand, and are unlikely to abandon the approach once the crisis ends. The market seems to agree that telehealth is here to stay.

The business consulting firm Frost and Sullivan forecast “a sevenfold growth in telemedicine by 2025 — a five-year compound annual growth rate of 38.2%.” Investors are also rushing into the telehealth space, which will spur new developments and broader adoption. 

Implications for Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners

Because telehealth is naturally well-suited for primary care, physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) will likely see this practice area grow dramatically. As such, providers should stay familiar with emerging telehealth technologies and remote care best practices. Specialists will also incorporate more advanced telehealth technologies, like remote patient monitoring, into their scope of care. So, regardless of your current practice area, telemedicine will have a significant impact on the work of PAs and NPs in the coming years. 

If you’d like to learn more about the implications of telehealth for PAs and NPs, and how to make the most of your career in the changing healthcare landscape, Physician Assistant Solutions can help. We offer physician assistant recruiting and staffing services that match PAs and NPs to employers across the nations. Contact us today to get started.

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