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Q&A: How can telehealth help lower risks during a public health crisis?

Published on 3/23/2020

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Virtual care delivered through a desktop device, phone or mobile app can be a helpful tool in controlling infectious diseases. In response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has expanded its telehealth coverage for Medicare recipients, paving the way for increased use of remote care, especially for seniors, who are the most at-risk for COVID-19 cases. The United States Department of Health and Human Services is also permitting clinicians to temporarily practice virtual care across state lines to help address emergency needs related to COVID-19.

American Well (Amwell), a national telehealth technology and services company, is seeing a substantial increase in patient traffic in response to COVID-19. In this Q&A, Dr. Peter Antall, Amwell chief medical officer, shares how virtual care can help combat a public health crisis and what health systems need to know to implement telehealth technology quickly and efficiently. 

“Telehealth is a powerful tool for enhancing health care, especially in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.” – Dr. Peter Antall

Q: Why should health care organizations look to virtual health care options amid the coronavirus pandemic?

A: Telehealth offers many benefits to both patients and providers. First, it enables safe evaluation of the “worried well,” meaning the majority of patients who may have a cold or the typical flu but, despite their concern, aren’t infected with COVID-19. Virtual care makes it possible for patients and providers to interact without the risk of the patient getting or spreading the infection at a hospital, physician’s office, urgent care center or other care venues.

It’s critical to support patients ─ particularly those who are elderly, have compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions ─ in receiving care at home while limiting their exposure to other germs. At the same time, patients who are infected with COVID-19, or those in quarantine, can receive regular care and evaluation through telehealth, helping to keep care teams safe and away from infection.

Virtual care also plays a role in improving access and mobilizing health care across the country, bringing clinical resources to the areas hit hardest by the disease outbreak. A benefit of telehealth is that it can scale rapidly. In the early stages of the outbreak, we saw the majority of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast; however, COVID-19 is now impacting the entire country. Telehealth can significantly increase the reach and impact of clinicians by providing extra support to care teams in crowded hospitals and urgent care centers.

 “Virtual care makes it possible for patients and providers to interact without the risk of the patient getting or spreading the infection at a hospital, physician’s office, urgent care center or other care venues.” – Dr. Peter Antall

Q: What are the best use cases for virtual health as we deal with the coronavirus? What are the limitations?

A: One of the greatest values of virtual health during an outbreak is its ability to limit the spread of infection. Patients can receive the medical attention they need while employing social distancing. The vast majority of Americans don’t have coronavirus, but they still need regular medical care. It’s critical that providers continue to see these patients without increasing their risk of exposure to the virus.

Another important use case is keeping clinicians on the front lines safe and supported. We’re facing a time of incredible strain on our health care system, and hospital beds, provider time and medical supplies are limited, so it’s important we save these resources for high-risk patients.

Telehealth enables providers to pre-screen and virtually assess patients who have COVID-19 concerns, reducing the number of people in hospitals and the risk of more people contracting the virus. Of course, if it’s determined in-person care is needed, the telehealth provider can assist with a seamless, coordinated referral to a local hospital, ensuring everyone is prepared and equipped to handle the patient’s case.

Q: How can health care organizations implement virtual health technology quickly to meet the rapidly growing demand?

A: Many hospitals and health systems that didn’t previously have a telehealth program are quickly realizing they need one now. Working with a reputable, experienced telehealth company is the first step toward standing up an offering in short order. Through the Amwell and Cerner collaboration, more than a quarter of the nation’s hospitals are positioned to implement telehealth technology swiftly. The integration between the electronic health record and virtual visits enables providers to maintain workflows and data flows, helping facilitate increased ease and efficiencies. Cerner and Amwell have developed an agile, innovative offering that can be up and running almost immediately.

“The most important thing health care organizations can do is ensure their patients know that virtual visits are the preferred method of care in cases such as COVID-19.” – Dr. Peter Antall

Q: How can health care organizations support their patients in using telehealth technology effectively?

A: Awareness is still a major barrier to people using telehealth services, so the most important thing health systems can do is ensure their patients know virtual visits are the preferred method of care in cases such as COVID-19.

It’s also important for patients to be empowered and supported in using the technology. Providers may need to coach patients through best practices and expectations for a telehealth visit. In addition, health care organizations should offer educational resources and tutorials for patients who may be less tech-savvy. 

The bottom-line is telehealth is a powerful tool for enhancing health care delivery, especially in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Now’s the perfect time to look at how telehealth can benefit your organization and your patients. With common goals, new strategies and one of the strongest health care systems in the world, we’ll come out stronger on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, we’ll have learned some new ways to help deliver health care ─ preparing us to better serve our communities in the future.

Virtual health care empowers people to manage their health and care in new ways. Learn more here.

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