By Terrence D. Sims, president and COO, Raintree Systems.
Telehealth is a $2.6B industry and has grown more than 25% since 2015. The global COVID-19 pandemic has switched telehealth’s use and acceptance into overdrive, and nearly every healthcare discipline is utilizing some form of telehealth platforms as part of their clinical offerings.
As the pandemic brought life to a stand-still, industries and employees were placed into one of two categories: those who provided essential services like grocery store staff, doctors, and emergency medical personnel and those who were deemed non-essential.
Non-essential businesses were ordered to shut down all operations while government officials figured out the next best steps for the safety of its citizens. Initially, physical therapy and other non-clinical medical professions were deemed non-essential. This changed when the Department of Homeland Security, along with state governments and healthcare officials, deemed physical therapy an essential healthcare service that should continue to treat its patients.
This acknowledgment placed the physical therapy sector in an interesting predicament. On one hand, many municipalities had issued stay-at-home orders. Even with the re-categorization of physical therapy as an essential healthcare service, many patients simply feared leaving their homes and chose to postpone much-needed physical therapy appointments until the virus was contained.
This dilemma forced physical therapy practitioners to explore the telehealth platform as a way to continue treating patients and to create a much-needed revenue stream for the health of the practice.
COVID-19 Triggers Regulatory Changes
The telehealth industry was already changing dramatically due to COVID-19. To help telehealth services become more widely available, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma relaxed HIPAA restrictions that had previously limited telemedicine as a patient care option.
The deregulations included the ability of physicians to treat patients across state lines without becoming licensed in that particular state and ushered in the development of IT infrastructures that did not meet compliance or regulatory parameters established by HIPPA laws. Lastly, a rapid introduction and approval of dozens of new billing codes were issued to itemize and enable medical professionals to bill Medicare for telehealth services.
For example, Medstar Health, an integrated health system in the Washington D.C. area, went from 10 telehealth visits per week to 4,000 per day. FAIR Health reported that telehealth claims went from their March 2019 base of 0.17% of all claims to 7.57% by the end of March 2020—a 43-fold increase in the first month of the pandemic alone. In the Northeast, where COVID hit incredibly hard, telehealth visits increased 150-fold.