America’s system of federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) has long been ground-zero in the battle against emerging public health emergencies. In the ’80s and ’90s, providers treated at-risk communities under threat from the AIDS virus. More recently, FQHCs have begun treating victims of the opioid epidemic. At every turn, these clinics formed a bulwark that kept underserved communities from being overrun by disease. That fight continues in the age of COVID.
Though we’re still learning about the disease, a few things have become clear. The first is that people experiencing poverty and people of color are more likely than other Americans to become infected with COVID and are much more likely to die. The second is that COVID-19 is highly transmissible. A recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study estimated that a person with COVID-19 could infect nearly six other people. That’s far more infectious than other diseases like Flu or even Ebola.
Because health centers serve a high percentage of poor and minority communities, they will inevitably face a surge of infected patients. To control the spread of the disease, FQHCs must identify sick people early, and isolate them, so they don’t infect others. Telehealth can serve as a critical tool in this regard.
In response to this crisis, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made a pool of $200 million available to help hospitals and health centers launch telehealth programs. While this money will undoubtedly help, some providers may need guidance on the best and highest use of the new tool. With that in mind, here are three ways providers can deploy telehealth in response to COVID-19:
Telehealth is an excellent tool to identify mild to moderate COVID cases without an in-person examination. Providers can also use this technology to monitor infected patients and make decisions about when to escalate care. This approach can help reduce exposure and emergency room visits.
Providers at every level of the care team can also use telehealth technology to check in on admitted patients. This approach could include live video conferencing and remote patient monitoring. By reducing the amount of provider-patient contact, health centers can help control the spread of the disease.
For outpatient clinics, telehealth can be a flexible tool to monitor self-quarantined patients remotely. This helps reduce healthcare capacity — which is critical in a widespread pandemic — and also reduces unnecessary exposure.
In addition, telehealth allows providers to treat vulnerable patients who still need ongoing healthcare but can’t risk exposure to the disease. This approach could be particularly valuable to patients with preexisting conditions, like respiratory ailments or diabetes, that make them susceptible to adverse COVID-19 outcomes.
Aside from protecting patients and the uninfected, telehealth can also help protect our healthcare system's integrity. By some estimates, more than 450,000 healthcare workers have contracted COVID-19, and 600 have died. These casualties limit hospitals, clinics, and primary care providers' ability to care for the sick adequately. If these tools can limit healthcare worker's exposure to the disease, the country will be more prepared to present a robust clinical response.
In the past, uneven reimbursement for telehealth services was a significant inhibiting factor of widespread adoption. Fortunately, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) changed reimbursement rules early in the outbreak so that providers could use the technology. These changes included adding more than 85 covered telehealth services reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits. In addition, providers could also remotely treat patients who live outside their geographic area and provide remote services for patients who hadn't previously made an in-person visit.
One positive side-effect of this terrible pandemic is that it may finally spur widespread adoption of telehealth delivery. Between the tangible benefits the service offers providers in this particular moment, the funding support being offered by the federal government, and more generous reimbursement rules, it's an excellent time to launch your telehealth practice.
Fortunately, you don't have to do it alone. Scribe-X offers its own proprietary telehealth platform, called ScribeBridge, free to existing customers. Patients enjoy a one-click service that connects them with their providers remotely, while clinics gain a robust and secure tool that comes with the services of a trained medical scribe. To learn more about how we can help launch you into the telehealth space while taking better care of your patients in the process, contact us today.