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The Punctuated Equilibrium Of Telemedicine: Digital Health Solutions And Government’s Role

Richard Schwabacher

September 14, 2022

As Covid-19 took hold in our communities, the increase in demand and need for telehealth and other virtual care options accelerated at an unprecedented pace.

As Covid-19 took hold in our communities, the increase in demand and need for telehealth and other virtual care options accelerated at an unprecedented pace.

Action was taken at the state and federal levels, as well as by payers and employers, to make telehealth easily accessible. Nearly overnight, swift changes in payment, reimbursement, coverage and licensing policies were made as the pandemic disrupted every facet of life. Telehelth benefits have proven to be popular, so much so that Congress recently voted 416-12 to extend benefits. Simultaneously, investment in the digital health market has soared to a record $29.1 billion in 2021 to transform a healthcare system that could support digital capabilities. Patients, already accustomed to digital services, like banking, quickly adapted to the change.

When radical change occurs in a short period of time and then finds a new balance, we call that a punctuated equilibrium. With respect to telemedicine, we don’t expect to return to life as we knew it before Covid-19 or, at the other end of the spectrum, settle in a place where high rates of telemedicine adoption were during the surges. Ultimately, there will be a new equilibrium that nestles between those two polar opposites.

Despite overwhelming investment and adoption of virtual care and telehealth options by patients and providers, barriers still exist. There are specific actions government and businesses can take and should, to support healthcare programs born out of the pandemic—but only if the economics and incentives are aligned.

Spotlight Moment For Laboratory Diagnostics

Laboratory diagnostics has always been a critical component of healthcare—diagnosis, prevention, management, and so forth—but the pandemic put lab testing and access to it squarely in the spotlight. It became an urgent need that nearly everyone had.

The value and role of laboratory diagnostics cannot be understated. According to the CDC, 70% of high-quality care depends on diagnostic testing to make medical decisions by equipping providers with the necessary information to properly address patient needs. Diagnostics are most often the healthcare tools providers rely on when diagnosing, managing and treating a variety of diseases and conditions; for instance, 12 of the 15 most clinically and economically significant disease categories in the U.S. dictate using laboratory diagnostics as the standard of care.

Lack of access to laboratory diagnostics for patients has wide-ranging effects, including implications for medication nonadherence that will continue to grow as the burden of chronic diseases grows.

The Role Of Government Policy

The patchwork approach to solving these problems will not suffice in the long run, which is why the role of government in the sustained expansion of virtual care services is so important. Healthcare policy ought to keep pace with the evolution of healthcare technology.

It’s encouraging to see the current administration invest in and promote innovation with information technology to better serve community health. The investment not only includes $34 billion initially invested through the HITECH sections of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but also many billions of dollars expended by U.S. industries, including laboratories. Three specific policies can help direct and reward innovation leading to better outcomes.

• Ensure that all patient data needed by clinicians for individual and population care is available. While the CURES Act and the ONC CURES Act Final Rules aim to prevent data blocking, business practices among providers and payers sometimes serve as effective barriers to serving patients in their communities. ONC and CMS can refine the rules to ensure data is available in all EHRs from all appropriate sources, facilitating timely availability of all patient data wherever it is needed.

• CMS should develop companion coding for telemedicine services and home-based specimen collection for lab testing. The value of telehealth is compromised if the patient must travel to a distant site for lab testing in support of the telehealth intervention.

• While the government can mandate that providers report specified data, the results from home-administered testing are not available in standardized electronic formats and do not get reported. This has created barriers to public health responses in communities most at risk.

What Can Businesses Do?

There are ways for businesses and the government to collaborate that can improve the telemedicine landscape that benefits patients and consumers, as the clear, quantifiable health outcomes speak for themselves and can help influence further adoption and integration.

For instance, the number of Medicare beneficiary telehealth visits increased 63-fold in 2020 to more than 52.7 million. While at the Mayo Clinic, ambulatory management of Covid-19 showed effective use of remote patient monitoring with a 78.9% engagement rate. These are just two examples that illustrate the increased adoption and success of making telemedicine an integral part of healthcare protocols. Companies that move to a value-based incentive model from a fee-for-service model and move toward reimbursement models that reward quality can be an alternative to the status quo.

Telemedicine can be part of the solution when addressing inequities in access to care, including specialty care and at-risk populations. We already know that lack of access to laboratory diagnostics for patients has wide-ranging effects that will continue to grow as the burden of chronic diseases grows.

Virtual Care Is Here To Stay

Digital healthcare models are changing the landscape of the healthcare system as we know it, and this is good news for patients and providers. The changes empower patients to take more control of their health, give them more options that cater more to their needs, lower costs for “virtual-first” or “hybrid care” healthcare plans and improve access.

Our collective experience during the pandemic has shown that people need healthcare and clear access points. The expanded use, adoption and successful integration of digital healthcare solutions have been received positively and have encouraged more participation. We need to continue to expand telehealth and remote options with policy that supports it—to backtrack on the progress we’ve made would be a mistake.

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