In an ideal world, a patient should be able to visit the doctor whenever he has health concerns. However, for many patients, particularly the millions living with lifelong chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), meeting this need is a challenge because of several reasons. Key among these are: lack of time and limited access to a nearby health facility. These obstacles, in turn, sometimes create even bigger problems, such as patients’ failure to practice daily routines of disease prevention and management, resulting in worsening of their conditions and triggering the need for emergent care.
Fortunately, a solution is underway. Experts are taking advantage of today’s modern technology—telehealth — and are using it to bring healthcare education and services closer to consumers. Most simply put, telehealthcare provides contact between clinicians and patients who are at some distance from each other, and uses telecommunication-ready tools to “see” each other and undergo clinical examinations even at a distance.
Through telehealth, patients can easily get in touch with their doctors without having to worry about geographical distances. From a residential setting, not only can a simple and known tool like a telephone be used as an audio communications device to connect patients with their clinicians, but an array of monitoring devices, such as blood pressure cuffs, pulse oximetry measurement tools, weight scales, and others, can also be used to transmit current vital sign readings for clinicians’ review. In the same manner, physicians can use today’s information technology to easily access their patients’ electronic health records and monitor their patients’ development outside the walls of their clinics or hospitals.
Truly, telehealthcare and remote monitoring have enabled many healthcare practitioners to help manage the chronic health conditions of their patients, and subsequently, help improve their patients’ quality of life.
Here are some selected FAQs about telehealth service delivery that focus most particularly on the home healthcare arena, which is most probably the health service sector most unaffected by new technology introduction and use until recent decades. Strictly hands-on, or ‘high touch” care service delivery was the order of the day throughout the 20th century. Yet home healthcare is likely to become a very critical component for achieving the much broader and longer term view of patient care delivery after patients’ discharge from hospital. It is then and at home that patients will receive subsequent services through their continuum of care that will keep them well over a long term.
Can I get reimbursed for providing telehealth?
The answer is yes, usually, for providing home telehealth services but not in the usual billing scenarios most home healthcare organizations are used to for submitting bills to Medicare or other insurers. As of now, mid-2015, changes in Medicare and Medicaid fee for services are just coming on-board affecting home telehealth service delivery. There is still a long way to go until Medicare will not very much require face-to-face home healthcare visits during a patient’s admission period—this is the same insurer who absolutely required specific documentation about every portion of nurses’ contact with patients and let the home health agencies (HHAs) know that to CMS, if something was not documented [e.g., a telephone call between nurse and patient about wellness directives] , it didn’t happen [and the bill would therefore not be paid]. Today there are many insurers beyond Medicare that are paying for home telehealthcare (e.g., Aetna, United Healthcare), but it’s very early on—we need to return to this question later this year.
How will I develop a home telehealth service capability? How will I develop a strategic and operating plan for this new delivery channel? Where will I get the technology? What type of training will be required of my people and what will the cost of training be and how many employee hours need to be dedicated to this training?
It’s best to keep in mind that, although the technology is new, you’re not beginning with a blank slate for running a healthcare service delivery business. While all of these questions about telehealth tool acquisition and use are important, the very first question to ask, not mentioned in this list of questions is, hands down, who are my HHA’s most costly patients? An agency-wide chart review would reveal that these are the patients that require the most visits, and additional training in self-management skills and routines.
Once identified, and these are usually patients living with specific chronic diseases and conditions, such as congestive heart failure (CHF) and non-healing wounds, then the subsequent questions can be addressed. In earlier days of home telehealth service delivery (ca. mid-1990s), a full-scale workstation was typically available that could be assigned to any home healthcare patient and came fitted with telecommunications-ready vital sign measuring peripheral devices such as a blood pressure cuff and pulse oximeter, as well as glucometer for measuring diabetic patients’ blood sugar levels even though some patients didn’t have diabetes. These were kind of a one-size-fits-all system, though these proved to be too costly for HHAs and too complicated for patients to use regularly and correctly. More common now is to order and assign only needed and stand-alone telecommunications-ready peripherals devices for patients to perform daily measurements and transmit them to their clinicians.