As you likely know, we are in the middle of healthcare reform. Our healthcare delivery is changing with three main goals as the driving force: improve quality, improve outcomes, and reduce cost — the Triple Aim (2). Telehealth and mHealth have been embraced by many as potential solutions — innovative deviations from the traditional ideas of healthcare. However, state and federal policy formation, implementation, and modification have been slow and ineffective inhibiting the full adoption of telehealth (2). The inconsistent, unclear policy and regulation and insufficient resources have sparked action and advocacy from various players in the telehealth world.
Solid evidence, consumer demand, leadership, commitment, and technology advancements are critical in optimizing telehealth services (2). Large organizations such as Nebraska Medicine, Kaiser Permanente, or Mayo Clinic play a vital role in meeting these demands by designing, implementing, and evaluating telehealth projects. It is pilot studies like those developed at these organizations that provide this solid evidence, demonstrate leadership, and make the consumer demands known.
Special interest groups such as the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) and the International Society for Telemedicine & eHealth also play a fundamental role in challenging outdated ideas of healthcare delivery, advocating for change, and providing insight and recommendations to policymakers.
Another important supporter of telehealth is the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP); a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that acts as a catalyst for change by bringing policymakers together with private health care sector, health plans, academic researchers, and consumer health advocates to gain ground in the Triple Aim objectives through telehealth (1).
These groups provide expert opinions to executive branches of government such as the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) where policy is designed, rules are made, the policy is put into operation, and subsequently evaluated (3). In an interview with Senator Nicole Fox, a committee member of the DHHS, she discussed the reliance that committee members have on expert advocate groups to inform them of the current status of telehealth and the future needs. Senator Fox provided examples of committee members not understanding the clinical pathways for many diagnoses, what services are appropriate for telehealth delivery, or what types of medical technology are available and how they can be useful to patients and providers. It is often difficult for government representatives and stakeholders such as CMS to see beyond the upfront costs of telemedicine; it is because of this that solid evidence is so vital in order to make forward progress (Senator Nicole Fox, personal communication, February 9, 2016).
Some of the most commonly debated regulatory efforts include reimbursement rates, limited services, cross-state licensure, and distance between provider and patient among others. Nebraska has been quite progressive in the expansion of telehealth. LB 1076 – the Nebraska Telehealth Act addressed many of the issues other states continue to battle (4). They have:
- revised the definition of telehealth to include telemonitoring and medical information electronically exchanged from one site to another whether synchronously or asynchronously (i.e. store and forward messaging through secured email is reimbursable)
- expanded the eligible telehealth providers to include all Medicaid enrolled providers
- clarified that a relationship can be established between patient and provider without a face-to-face visit
- required managed care contracts with managed care plans to include coverage of healthcare services delivered through telehealth.
There are plenty of regulatory mechanisms that continue to be debated — interstate licensure (expedited multi-state licensure), parity laws for private insurance coverage (see image below for U.S. report card), expansion of covered diagnoses, and more. These issues will need to be addressed in a timely manner if telehealth is to be fully adopted and available to everyone in need of access to care. Unfortunately, regulatory mechanisms need to be updated as frequently as the technology itself. Thankfully, there are a lot of actors advocating for the cause.
While changing public and private policy is important in advancing telehealth, it is “insufficient for achieving widespread adoption of telehealth care” (2). Institutions and special interest groups are integral in creating partnerships in research, practice, technology, consumer support, policy, and financing.
Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP). (2016). About CCHP. Retreived from http://cchpca.org/about-cchp
Gutierrez, M. (2014). The role of telehealth in the triple aim. Retrieved from http://www.phi.org/news-events/655/the-role-of-telehealth-in-the-triple-aim
Longest, B.B. Jr. (2016). Health policymaking in the United States (6th ed.). Chicago, IL: Health Administration Press.
Nebraska Legislature. (2014). Legislative bill 1076. Retrieved from http://nebraskalegislature.gov/FloorDocs/103/PDF/Slip/LB1076.pdf