Opinion

The Coronavirus Is Catapulting American Health Care Into the 21st Century

Crises precipitate change. Nowhere is that more evident than how the coronavirus pandemic is breaking down the calcified American health care system and catapulting it into the 21st century. These updates put the country in a better position to win the war against this virus.

One weapon is expanded telemedicine. This week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it will reimburse providers for a wide range of telehealth services, including phone calls. The “Phase 3” stimulus bill passed by Congress last week allows Medicare to reimburse providers for telehealth — even for first visits.

The legislation increases payments to telemedicine-equipped health centers and rural clinics. It lets patients with high-deductible plans use telehealth before they’ve met their deductibles. And, it provides the Federal Communications Commission with $200 million in telemedicine funding. Taken together, these measures will significantly accelerate virtual care when it’s needed most.

Smartphone care is smart care during a pandemic. Telemedicine enables patients to trade crowded waiting rooms for the safety and comfort of their dining room tables. Virtual access to care from home is especially important for seniors, who are most at risk of dying from coronavirus. 

At-home treatment will also free up hospitals and doctors’ offices for those who genuinely need them, mitigating the spread of the disease and flattening the case count curve. Virtual care is, therefore, the first line of defense to protect the safety of patients and medical personnel. Telemedicine makes smartphones valuable weapons in the fight against this virus.

Complementing the expansion of telemedicine is the movement to break down artificial barriers preventing health care professionals from working — either virtually or in-person — across state lines. Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar wrote to the nation’s governors, asking them to deregulate these licensing restrictions, so that doctors and nurses can practice in other states and increase access to care across the nation, especially benefiting patients in rural and underserved areas.

Overstressed health care professionals “need backup,” Azar wrote. “Your help is needed to ensure health professionals maximize their scopes of practice and are able to travel across state lines or provide telemedicine to communities where they are needed most.” So far, 35 states, including large ones like Texas, have deregulated some of their licensing requirements to increase their care capacity.

Expanded telehealth and national licensure can facilitate the enlistment of retired or inactive medical personnel to support health care workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus war. A recruitment pool of roughly 200,000 inactive physicians and 400,000 retired registered nurses is available, and the ability to practice anywhere from the comfort of their homes makes the logistics of returning to practice far simpler. Their help will free up existing resources to deal with the most severe cases.

To further encourage retired and inactive doctors and nurses to enlist, the federal government can indemnify retirees and emergency personnel for malpractice coverage. It can also call on governors to issue a moratorium on malpractice lawsuits, eliminating a significant disincentive to returning to the workforce.

There’s another 21st-century health care reform that would further weaponize smartphones for this fight: providing patients with complete access to their electronic health records. With their medical records at their fingertips, patients can grant doctors, caregivers and family members temporary access with the touch of a button — just like people can share their locations with friends via smartphone apps like Find My Friends or Life360.

This portability will enable patients to get broader access to care wherever they are. Having access to health information and broad access to health care through telemedicine will save lives, time and money.

Last month, the Trump administration finalized new rules to require hospitals and electronic health record vendors to give patients electronic access to their complete health information via mobile apps on their smartphones. Yet the rules give electronic health record vendors, hospitals and health networks between six months and two years to release this information.

Amid this pandemic, this timeline is too long. If it’s followed, lives will be lost, and care will be compromised. The health records industry should recognize the crisis and voluntarily let this information flow immediately.

The coronavirus necessitates health care to dive headfirst into the digital age in the fastest and most expansive way possible, so Americans can best fight this virus. Catapulting American health care into the digital age with broad virtual access to treatment is the silver lining of and potentially the silver bullet for the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

Cynthia A. Fisher is a life sciences entrepreneur, the founder and chairman of PatientRightsAdvocate.org and the founder and former CEO of ViaCord Inc.

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