The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the use of telemedicine in Arkansas five years ahead of where it would be otherwise, said David Wroten, executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society.
And with it comes new benefits and conveniences to health care providers and patients, industry professionals said.
“We saw this tremendous surge during the early stages of the pandemic. And, by the time that the governor rescinded the emergency declaration, I think everybody had settled into a fairly routine use of telemedicine, even clinics that are seeing most of their patients come back in now,” Wroten said. “A lot of times, they’ll give patients the option of using a telemedicine visit instead of coming in.”
Wroten said that before the pandemic, hospitals, large clinics and teaching facilities were more likely to use telemedicine than a typical family practice doctor. But during the pandemic, patients stayed away from family practice clinics for fear of infection, making telemedicine an attractive option.
Necessity wasn’t the only driver. Several policy changes paved the way in Arkansas. Legal frameworks at state and federal levels now favors telemedicine more than ever.
Wroten said that to use telemedicine, a physician must first have a relationship with that patient. Until the pandemic, there were two ways to establish that relationship: First was an in-person visit, and second was through use of real-time audio-visual technology. That worked as long as physicians could get the same information from patients as they would get from them in person.
During the pandemic, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order allowing that relationship to be established “by any means whatsoever, as long as the standard of care was met and as long as the physician had access to the patient’s medical record,” Wroten said. In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved new state laws that mirror the executive order, along with measures allowing physicians to establish access to medical records using certain kinds of telemedicine, Wroten said.
During the pandemic, insurance carriers started to reimburse family practice doctors for using telemedicine at rates equal to in-office visits. Dr. Darren Sommer, founder of Innovator Health of Little Rock, said he expects some reduction in telemedicine reimbursements, but not a return to the pre-pandemic insurance environment. And he is optimistic that advancements in telemedicine will eventually warrant equal reimbursement.
At the federal level, regulators relaxed HIPAA rules so providers could use more technologies. And health insurance carriers began paying for more telemedicine, even phone calls between providers and patients.
Arkansas was a late adopter of telemedicine and one of the last states to write legislation for it, but the state took a patient-centered approach when it did, said Jodiane Tritt, executive vice president of the Arkansas Hospital Association.
“First and foremost, Arkansas definitely wanted to make sure that continuity of care and that the relationship that a patient has with his or her provider is serious, and meaningful, and that we can share information very confidentially, and definitely with the onset of health care insurers and Medicare and Medicaid paying for the telemedicine service,” she said.
Tritt said patients love having telemedicine as an option because it’s convenient, and federal legislation has been introduced that would enable them to receive health care in their homes via telemedicine.
Wroten expects telemedicine providers to adapt and deploy even better technology.