If you’ve been worried about going into a doctor’s office during the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s some good news: Medicare coverage has been expanded to include telehealth services, something you can benefit from in the safety and comfort of your own home.
The benefits of this technology include how people can safely practice social distancing, which can help to prevent the spread of the virus and protect patients, healthcare workers and family caregivers.
The Medicare expansion is part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. Signed into law on March 6, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was given the authority to “temporarily waive certain Medicare restrictions and requirements regarding telehealth services during the coronavirus public health emergency.”
Then, on March 17, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shared that routine follow-up visits, such as for Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, can be handled through telemedicine. In other words, you can use a technology like Skype for the consultation and Medicare will cover the costs. In the past, insurance typically paid less than half of the amount for virtual visits when compared to office visits.
AARP shares a quote from a Cleveland Clinic geriatrician who says he is encouraging his patients to take advantage of virtual visits whenever possible. “With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, there's greater urgency because we do not want to expose our older patients who are more vulnerable to its complications the risk of illness,” Ronan Factora, M.D., says.
According to Kaiser Health News, on March 27, the Cleveland Clinic was on track to handle 60,000+ telemedicine visits that month. Prior to this, they averaged about 3,400 monthly virtual visits.
What Virtual Visits Are Like
You’ll be given a time to call in and be provided with an email link that allows you to also check-in by computer. When the doctor is ready, you’ll be connected through telehealth technology that allows you to see one another. The doctor will have your chart available and may ask you to take your temperature or measure your heart rate. He or she will observe how easily you’re breathing, whether you look like you’re in pain or distress, and so forth. In many ways, this is similar to an in-person office visit, including in quality of care.
Are there limits to telehealth technology? Of course. There are some things that a doctor can check that you can’t. But this does provide increased access to care, which may be especially important to older adults who don’t want to potentially expose themselves to COVID-19 during office visits.
Telemedicine can be used for primary care, specialty care and mental health services. Older adults can call their doctors to see how they’re using telehealth services through smartphones and computers.
If there is a situation where a doctor isn’t offering telemedicine, there are multiple private technology companies that you can contact — and they’ll have a doctor contact you. These companies include:
Before COVID-19, telemedicine was only covered by Medicare for specific, short purposes or for people living in rural areas with longer distances to travel to see their doctors. Besides opening telehealth services to all Medicare participants, doctors can now practice across state lines, according to federal guidelines, increasing accessibility to care.
Two of the biggest challenges to its use have included Medicare’s previous limitations on such services and the reluctance of some older adults to use virtual visits. But now that Medicare has loosened restrictions and more older adults are using this technology, many experts predict that enhanced telemedicine options will continue to be made available to them. Plus, private insurers often follow the lead of Medicare and, if more of them cover the costs of online visits, then their usage will likely continue to increase.
Plus, telehealth services have been playing an increasing role in skilled nursing facilities, even before COVID-19. In fact, studies have shown that 60% to 70% of transfers from a nursing home to a hospital are unnecessary, wasting time, money, and energy, something that telemedicine is now helping to address.
For example, one telehealth system was tested in 17 different skilled nursing facilities. The results included how:
- unnecessary hospitalizations went down by 26%
- emergency room visits decreased by 40%
Plus, this saved Medicare $40 billion dollars.
When quality of care can be provided without having an older adult leave a nursing home in a cost-efficient way, that’s a true win/win.
Not a Replacement for Office Visits
One use of virtual visits will be to observe and screen patients for potentially more serious conditions. If a doctor is concerned about someone’s ability to breathe normally, for example, he or she may ask the patient to come in for an office visit. There, a doctor can listen to lungs, order X-rays, and so forth. Or if a patient is clearly in significant distress, the doctor can tell him or her to come into the ER or to call for an ambulance.