By Terrence D. Sims, president & 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.
First-of-its-Kind Survey Results – Proof Positive
With telehealth platforms being adopted at record speed across all medical disciplines, Bay State Physical Therapy teamed up with Northeastern University’s Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences to conduct the first of its kind survey. The premise of the study was to understand better how patients were reacting to telehealth platforms within the physical therapy sector. The survey targeted more than 450 patients across 60 physical therapy clinics utilizing telehealth. The results proved that telehealth services are making a positive and lasting impact on the industry and its patients.
The surgery reports a 95 percent positive patient satisfaction rating with their telehealth experience. Interestingly, these results mirror the in-clinic patient satisfaction rating of 97 percent, demonstrating that patients are just as satisfied with their telehealth appointments as they are from going into the doctor’s office. A key driver for the high-ranking was convenience, followed closely by comfort and safety.
One of the most encouraging survey results was the patient satisfaction rating among elderly patients, who many consider being less tech-savvy when operating virtual conferencing programs that are common in telehealth platforms. Of the respondents aged 65 and older, more than 90 percent indicated they were satisfied with their telehealth appointment. Other areas that show encouraging data were that more patients keeping their appointments (fewer no-show rates) and that the cost of care decreased due to patients completing their care regimen much sooner than in-office visit therapy.
Telehealth Becoming a Staple
As global pandemic continues to dictate much of our lives, telemedicine has become a viable healthcare offering. With telehealth becoming a staple within the “new normal” of healthcare offerings, the clearer the benefits become, not only for patients but for healthcare providers. With the ability to provide quality healthcare from a virtual location, physicians are creating additional revenue streams to make up for the loss of in-office patient visits. Not only are they able to offer consultations and some clinical services, but they are also able to see more patients in a single day.
From what we are learning, telehealth is poised for continued growth within the healthcare industry and will be included in a patient’s overall healthcare and treatment plan when applicable. What we do know is that telehealth will not wholly replace in-office visits, especially within “hands-on” healthcare fields such as physical therapy. As the industry utilizes this platform more frequently, there is an expectation for updated best practices to be discovered and shared.
To date, we are learning that the virtual, telehealth platform will likely grow within the physical therapy industry. The feasibility of real-time, virtual touchpoints with patients appears to be an effective supplement that is an option to conventional methods of modern healthcare delivery. Telehealth, when appropriately used, enables the continuity of care and connection for physical therapists and their patients.