By Adam Herbst, senior vice president, chief legal, compliance, planning and government relations officer for Blythedale Children’s Hospital and adjunct assistant professor, and Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine, New York Medical College.
We continue to see how states are responding to the multiple challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents – trying to ensure there is hospital capacity for patients, protective equipment for healthcare workers, money in the hands of the unemployed, and food in the mouths of those who are hungry. All these endeavors have been responsive, by which we mean that even when states are preparing for problems, state leaders are enacting temporary solutions with the hope to return to the status quo ante.
Yet there is one major area of healthcare that the pandemic is forcing state and health leaders to confront, which can fundamentally change healthcare delivery in the future – telemedicine. While telemedicine has begun to replace office visits to primary care physicians and in certain specialties, it can be a major disruptor for behavioral health, where changes made now could last long after the pandemic. That will be a good thing. It would allow healthcare to meet the increasing needs for behavioral health, both because of the pandemic and in general. It would also serve as a paradigm case for how healthcare can and should adapt to meet the economic, social, and technological needs and opportunities of the future.
Because of the pandemic, states have loosened regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA and other privacy protection measures, so that patients can access clinicians through Skype and Facetime. This has created access to conventional clinical care, such as diagnosis and monitoring, as well as patient education and wellness promotion, among other services.
Telehealth has also benefited from the easing of restrictions, but states can and should do more. For example, while states have suspended border restrictions for telehealth due to the pandemic, the suspension is temporary, like all other responses so far. But it shouldn’t be. Public officials and health leaders need to find ways to maintain the increased and flexible access to telehealth even after the pandemic, especially in behavioral health.