WASHINGTON -- The coronavirus pandemic is prompting a surge in telemedicine use, and advocates hope recent emergency expansions will mark a turning point in the movement toward virtual care.
As the world continues the new "social distancing" protocol, hospitals are working to reduce in-person contact to slow new infections and conserve resources for the critically ill. The pandemic is triggering a surge in telehealth adoption as U.S. doctors connect to patients virtually, with both established platforms and start-ups reporting astronomic increases in volume.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services temporarily relaxed restrictions on various audio-visual technologies, but providers are calling for additional clarity on state licensing provisions for clinicians, as well as technical limits around modalities like virtual chats.
Major telehealth providers are experiencing a coronavirus surge in volume in addition to the seasonal increase for cold and flu visits. MDLIVE said urgent care visits doubled in Washington state, one area hit hardest by the outbreak. American Well, the producer of the Amwell app that has struggled with the influx in certain areas, said usage has increased 158% nationwide and 650% in Washington state.
American Well Chief Medical Officer Peter Antall said the company is speeding the installation of new servers and routers to handle the "unprecedented" circumstances facing the health care industry.
"We are working tirelessly and in close coordination with our clients to ensure our systems and personnel are able to handle the load," he said in a statement.
Start-ups are also lending a hand. New York-based consumer telehealth platform Ro launched a free covid triage service to assess symptoms and potentially provide video consultations for anyone throughout the country.
Mark Stephan, chief medical officer for Q Point Health, part of the Phoenix-based consultant and tech provider Equality Health that partners with local physician practices, started rolling out a new video chat platform to 1,300 of its primary care doctors last week at no additional charge. Doctors began calling for general coronavirus information when the outbreak began, he said, but quickly started seeking help to limit the potential impact of the virus.
"The No. 1 ask was, 'Do you have any recommendations for a telehealth solution?'" Stephan said.
The company is onboarding multiple practices a day, Stephan said, with representatives demonstrating both technical know-how and video basics such as lighting tips.