A few weeks ago, I got an invitation from my primary care doctor to join a virtual health care program that her practice was starting. For the first time, I considered what it might mean for me to receive medical services and have a “doctor visit” from the comfort of my home.
Telemedicine—the delivery of remote care through electronic communication—was not widely implemented before COVID-19. Fewer than one in 10 Americans were using it last year.
Of course, my recent personal invitation came about because of COVID-19. The pandemic has impacted all aspects of the U.S. health care system. Telemedicine is not new, but it is being used in new ways now.
The technology for digital doctor visits existed, but there were barriers: The idea was unfamiliar to many patients and doctors, and the health care system had not figured out how to reimburse doctors for virtual services.
As the virus spread across the country, though, many patients were hesitant to seek in-person care and risk potential exposure. Medical providers, from dermatologists to clinical social workers, rushed to offer virtual health care visits.
How government helped: In response, the federal government eased regulations, expanded access to telemedicine for Medicare recipients, and waived policies against the use of platforms like FaceTime. New York changed licensing laws that prevented clinicians from providing care to patients outside of the state. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand also announced securing $1.6 million in support of telehealth services.
Why telemedicine works: We know that technology is not the answer to all of society’s ills, and nothing could ever truly replace the in-person, one-on-one conversation between a patient and a doctor. But the benefits of telemedicine are hard to ignore. During this crisis, telemedicine has allowed patients to receive care while staying safely at home. Virtual visits also meet patient demand for greater flexibility and faster diagnoses.
Why telemedicine is an important option for vulnerable populations: Telemedicine also increases the accessibility of care for vulnerable populations. This improvement in health equity is especially critical because 3.6 million Americans miss or delay essential health care appointments every year due to transportation barriers. And that was before COVID-19 struck. The simple challenge of not being able to get a ride to your doctor’s office can result in poorer health outcomes and extra costs, especially for those seniors or people with low incomes who have chronic conditions. More telemedicine in the future could mean better health care for vulnerable and low-income populations and better health outcomes.
Next steps: The pandemic has shown that widespread virtual health care is possible. We can, in many instances, bring the provider to the patients. What’s unclear, however, is whether telemedicine offerings will be available and accessible long-term. Most of the current regulatory easing is temporary, and returning to previous reimbursement levels will make it difficult for clinicians to continue offering virtual visits.
In a good first step, the state Senate and Assembly passed legislation this month that would give doctors the flexibility to conduct “audio-only” telephone appointments to accommodate vulnerable residents in underserved communities who may not have access to video-enabled devices.
To ensure more patients have access to telemedicine in the future, policymakers, insurers, and clinicians need to take additional deliberate action now. New York must develop permanent service reimbursement and licensing policies. And we must get serious about closing the digital divide by investing in telecommunications, making virtual doctor visits equally accessible for all members of our community.
We often ask sick people to attend medical appointments on the clinician’s terms, and as a result, many Americans do not receive the care they need. Telemedicine offers a chance for patients to receive health care on their own terms.
Samra Brouk led health equity initiatives as a Peace Corps Volunteer and is a nonprofit leader and candidate for the New York Senate, 55th District.