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Telemedicine Tipping Point Seen as Virus Alters Care

3 min read

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, but it is also ushering telemedicine into widespread acceptance in Arkansas.

As eased regulations provide wider access to remote medical care, patients and providers are discovering the convenience of house calls via smartphone or computer as opposed to office visits.

Baptist Health of Little Rock, the state’s largest heath care system, has already seen the impact.

“The push to use virtual services because of the virus … is going to change the landscape of virtual services for Baptist Health completely,” said Kourtney Matlock, Baptist Health’s corporate vice president of the care continuum.

Matlock said that in 2019, Baptist Health reported 4,000 telehealth visits. Not yet three months into 2020, that number is in the rearview mirror.

Two weeks ago, Baptist Health arranged for more than 100 doctors in several specialties to treat patients with telemedicine. Several doctors cheered the expansion, she said. “I’ve had quite a few providers, cardiologists in particular, say I don’t know why it wouldn’t be 50% of our practice going forward,” Matlock said.

Baxter Regional Medical Center is also making changes.

In February 2019, it released an urgent-care-on-demand app so patients could have video chats with doctors 24/7. Last year the app facilitated about 400 patient visits.

“But what we’ve seen is the demand for telehealth goes through the roof, especially as patients now desire to be treated in the home because of COVID-19,” said Tobias Pugsley, director of marketing at Baxter Regional Medical Center.

Last week, Baxter launched a pilot program at one of its family clinics that lets patients schedule telemedicine visits. Pugsley shopes to expand the program quickly to Baxter’s primary care and specialists’ clinics.

Regulatory Changes

The federal government on March 18 temporarily eased its telemedicine rules for the length of the COVID-19 emergency.

The rules now allow providers to use FaceTime, Skype or similar services for virtual care visits.

Pevious federal law restricting the release of medical information prevented use of those platforms, said Amie Alexander, an attorney in the Little Rock office of Friday Eldredge & Clark whose practice area includes health care.

More people are familiar with technology like FaceTime or Skype than they are with the process of downloading an app and getting it set up, she said.

“You’re already seeing a lot of shift to telemedicine come in, but I think right now it’s so beneficial to patients because they don’t have to leave their homes,” Alexander said.

“Older patients don’t need to be leaving their homes at all right now, so it’s much safer to have a consult via telemedicine. It’s also much more convenient.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also said it would temporarily start paying for telemedicine inpatient visits for Medicare and Medicaid patients, no matter where the patient lives. “In the past, the patient had to be in a rural area in order for the provider to bill,” Matlock said. “So if we had a person that lived in Conway, … we couldn’t bill for any kind of telehealth there.”

She said the government’s moves to change that will open the door to more patient visits. And these days people are more apt to learn navigating technology.

“One of the biggest reasons we did not have more of an uptake in the past was that our providers didn’t think their patients would respond well to the technology,” Matlock said.

The clinics have guided patients through downloading Baptist Health’s app, called Baptist Health Virtual Care, which is blue and has the outline of Arkansas on it. “I think because of the groundwork that they’re laying with those patients, I think it’s going to make it so incredibly easy to provide the same services in the future.”

Baxter’s Pugsley said he expects COVID-19 will be the tipping point for digital adoption. “People who never would have tried telehealth are now requesting it as an option.”

But he doesn’t expect brick-and-mortar clinics to fade away. Baxter Regional has opened two clinics already this year.

The clinics-telemedicine combination could be a force that “paves the way for opportunities to deliver medicine like we’ve never had before,” he said.

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