Virtual Health Care Options Help Curb Spread of COVID-19, Medicare Restrictions Lifted

March 9, 2020 Updated: March 9, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is urging healthcare facilities to increase the use of telehealth, in hopes of slowing the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and minimizing contact with possible patients.

Telehealth uses telecommunications technology to offer healthcare services to people without the need to visit a healthcare facility. Some of the services include remote diagnosis, treatment, and virtual health education.

“Telehealth is an initiative that was already in progress and being developed prior to COVID-19, and this has been part of what the health system has been devoting resources to,” Dr. Bruce Hirsch, Infectious Disease Specialist at North Shore University Hospital (a subsidiary of Northwell Health) in New York said to The Epoch Times. “With this outbreak, we want to explore telemedicine and try to expand telemedicine as best as we can for select medical staff so we can take advantage of this.”

Telehealth is sometimes used interchangeably with telemedicine and telecare, although there are slight differences in the services they provide. Telehealth encompasses both telemedicine and telecare as it offers “a wider variety of remote healthcare services beyond the doctor-patient relationship,” according to the Federal Communications Commission. Telemedicine is more focused on providing healthcare services usually by physicians, while telecare uses technology that allows patients to live independently and safely on their own.

Using telehealth allows patients to be quickly assessed by a medical doctor and keeps them from spreading the infection in a crowded waiting room if they are sick.

Restrictions Lifted for Medicare Recipients

The population most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus are older adults, many of whom are on Medicare. Telehealth services are normally not covered under Medicare except for those beneficiaries in rural areas.

The emergency spending bill (pdf) signed by President Trump on March 6 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak opens up access to telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries. The bill includes a provision to waive restrictions that didn’t allow access to telehealth for Medicare patients unless certain requirements were met.

“That was really earth-shattering news for those of us in telehealth,” Peter Antall, chief medical officer of telehealth provider Amwell (formerly American Well) said on The Verge. “It’s right on target, as far as we’re concerned. This is the patient population most at risk for complications.”

Telehealth providers say they experienced an increase in visits during the epidemic. “At the time when the first U.S. death was reported, we saw an increase in visits by about 11 percent. This level of increase has held steady for our urgent care visit since then,” Holly Springs, Amwell spokesperson wrote in an email to The Epoch Times.

Hospital Prevention Protocol

Epoch Times Photo
Medical staff are checking on a COVID-19 coronavirus patient at the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan, China on March 6, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Hospitals across the country are implementing the CDC’s guidelines to prepare for an outbreak of COVID-19.

“We’re doing kind of everything that we possibly can to respond to this, and to respond to this in a way that makes a lot of sense,” said Hirsch. “We’re having a department-wide staff education. There’s been protocols for clinical staff, for office staff in the outpatient settings on how to be prepared.”

CommonSpirit Health, with 137 hospitals in 21 states, wrote in an email to The Epoch Times: “Communications with our employees and physicians is of the utmost importance, which we are doing with regular updates, constant vigilance, and ongoing preparedness. Across all of our hospitals and clinics, we are continuously updating an online learning module, and are also conducting regular exercises on the correct procedures for using personal protection equipment (PPE), and communicating best practices on infection prevention while treating patients who may potentially be infected with COVID-19.”

To prevent further spread of COVID-19, Hirsch said that Northwell Health is increasing its efforts on phone triage and reaching out to patients. “We’ve automated certain things like phone call reminders about appointments, and those things are being looked into and being considered on how to use our existing staff to be able to reach out to patients prior to visits, to make sure that people are not traveling unnecessarily. If there’s a viral infection at a time this pandemic is spreading, it’s more common to put off selective care until a period of time that it is safer.”

“We have a screening tool and algorithms as part of our electronic health record system that help clinicians evaluate whether patients may have the virus,” wrote CommonSpirit. “In our hospitals, we have processes in our triage areas to quickly identify potential cases and place a patient in appropriate isolation areas.”

For patients who may be coming down with a viral infection, CommonSpirit wrote, “We are also asking those visiting our facilities who are experiencing symptoms consistent with infectious disease, to identify their concern at the time of registration and ask for a mask immediately.”

Some preventative measures to take against the coronavirus are washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, covering your cough or sneeze with your bent elbow, and avoiding touching your mouth, eyes, and nose.

Seek medical attention early and call in advance if you experience a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.