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Coronavirus has forced doctors, insurers to embrace telemedicine like never before

Sarah Gantz, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

When pain radiated from Fred Thomas' neck down his arm and he couldn't feel his fingers anymore, he knew it was time to talk to a doctor.

After getting an MRI ordered by his primary-care doctor, the 49-year-old land surveyor had several phone conversations with a Rothman Orthopaedic Institute specialist he'd never met to discuss the problem and treatment options. He was scheduled for a cervical fusion to replace three damaged disks in his spine a couple weeks later.

"By the time I met him, I felt like I'd been in his office 15 times," said Thomas, who lives in Wilkes-Barre. "We spoke in person for the first time a few minutes before he operated."

Months ago, few patients or doctors would have considered surgery without so much as an in-person consultation, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced the health-care system to embrace telemedicine like never before.

With no other way to see a doctor as the virus shuttered all but the most essential health-care services, regulatory hurdles that hamstrung the growth of telemedicine for decades were wiped away: Private insurers, Medicare and Medicaid agreed to pay the same rates for telemedicine visits they would have for in-person appointments. The federal government loosened privacy regulations that had in the past restricted how patients and doctors communicate virtually.

In response, telemedicine visits soared. The approach has been exceedingly popular among patients and doctors, and so universally adopted by health systems that experts say telemedicine is likely here to stay. Not only have health systems proven that telemedicine is an effective and useful tool for treating existing patients, virtual doctors' visits also present an opportunity for health systems now forced to grapple with the racial inequities highlighted during the pandemic to improve access to care.

 

"We have this opportunity as the result of a very horrific, virulent disease to re-imagine health care," said Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

But maintaining telemedicine will be possible only if providers and insurers are able to agree to fair payment, and if regulators are able to work out security and patient privacy issues.

Exponential growth in telehealth

When the pandemic shut down non-urgent medical services in Philadelphia in March, Penn Medicine quickly equipped nearly 9,000 providers to meet patients by video or phone and now averages 5,000 telemedicine visits a day -- a nearly overnight change from a few hundred doctors doing a few hundred visits.

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