I missed the initial announcement last month, but the US Department of Health and Human Services has issued guidance on “How the HIPAA Rules Permit Health Plans and Covered Health Care Providers to Use Remote Communication Technologies for Audio-Only Telehealth,” which will apply even after the Office of Civil Rights “Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth” no longer applies. Audio-only telehealth is important for populations that don’t have adequate broadband access or who can’t access video visits due to disability, cell coverage, or other factors.
Seeing telehealth patients over the last four years, I found that nearly half of the patients I treated preferred audio-only visits, for a variety of reasons. There are some interesting details in the document on the use of traditional landline phone services as compared to electronic communication technologies such as internet-based phone services, cellular service, and Wi-Fi. The HIPAA Security Rule applies to the latter technologies, but not the POTS lines, although I’m not sure how many covered entities still use copper wire for their communications.
Most large healthcare organizations are trying to forecast what their use of telehealth services will look like in a post-pandemic world. In speaking with CMIO colleagues, it seems like their ideas on the topic run across a pretty wide spectrum. There are quite a few who feel that telehealth has provided substantial benefit for patients and providers and therefore plan to continue it. Those organizations are increasing telehealth budgets, working on staffing strategies, and more.
One health system that I follow is doubling down on virtual primary care, standing up virtual clinics and virtual patient panels. From a technology perspective, it feels like they’re just replicating their in-person workflows in the virtual world, complete with staff performing intakes and then referring patients to go visit the hospital lab and pharmacy at the end of the visit. They’re not yet approaching things like home phlebotomy or medication delivery. Other than not having to leave the house, the visits are pretty much business as usual, so they should seem familiar to the patients.
Another system I’ve consulted for in the past is retreating from telehealth somewhat. They’re adding additional capacity for nurse practitioners and physician assistants to offer same-day acute visits and are reducing the options for telehealth visits with primary care physicians so that the physicians can focus on patients who need to be seen in the office. That approach likely provides less convenience for patients who have grown accustomed to telehealth, and also potentially requires more real estate square footage since they’re going to have more providers and increased foot traffic in the offices. They feel that telehealth is impersonal and that their patients want a level of care that can only be given in person. As a patient, I’d argue that in-person care also brings a level of annoyance that many of us are trying to avoid.
We’ll have to see how it plays out and whether their capacity forecasts are accurate or whether they see patients defect to the health system across town since it’s still offering plenty of telehealth availability.
A recent survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the SCAN foundation asked 1,000 US adults for their thoughts about what their lives will be like after the pandemic. While 48% said that telehealth was a “good thing” that should continue to be available, 52% responded that they’re not likely to use virtual care in a post-pandemic world. The breakdown of responses by age was interesting. For adults over 50, a mere 16% said they would continue telehealth visits. Looking at a younger crowd, 22% of adults under 50 said they would opt for virtual care. Not surprisingly, respondents with concerns about being infected with COVID-19 had a higher likelihood of wanting to continue with virtual healthcare. Most of the patients I see are in the under-50 age bracket, so I think it’s fairly likely they’ll want to continue with current telehealth options.
Looking more generally at the responses, only 12% of adults felt that their lives are the same today as they were before the pandemic, where 54% feel that life is somewhat the same and 34% feel their lives are not yet the same. Still, many adults in the US have resumed their pre-pandemic activities, including socializing with friends, dining out, visiting older relatives in person, travel, and worship. Only about half plan to use public transportation, which I find surprising given the rising cost of fuel (survey responses were gathered May 12-16, 2022).
Despite increasing COVID in my community (at least according to sewer shed data, since testing numbers are no longer reliable), the majority of people seem to be going about their business without masks, even though they’re recommended. I’ve had a combination of allergies and a cold for the last week, complete with eight negative COVID tests, and am convinced that since I haven’t had a cold in the past two years that I’ve forgotten how miserable it can be. Of course, it might just be undetectable COVID, but based on the negative tests and narrow symptom profile, I’d be surprised. No one I’ve been around has reported being sick either, so it’s a bit of a mystery if it’s something beyond just some wicked allergies. I engage in most of my pre-COVID activities, although most of them tended to be outside or with small groups of people and are fairly low risk.
I’ll be increasing my risk tolerance in coming weeks, as I have a couple of leisure trips coming up. I’ll be masking on the plane and in the airport and anywhere that seems like it doesn’t have great ventilation. One of the events I’m attending promises to be a reunion of sorts with lots of healthcare IT people I’ve worked with in the last decade, so I’m excited about that, as well as the ability to spend some quality time with one of my favorite healthcare personalities. I did some checking on the places I’m headed, and it looks like some of the entertainment venues still have mandatory masking. It will be interesting to be somewhere that’s a little stricter than home as far as preventive measures. I’ll be traveling with a stash of COVID test kits just in case, although I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that I won’t need them. Hopefully during my travels, I won’t need any telehealth services, although I know where to find them if I need them.
Have you had to use telehealth while on vacation, and what was your experience? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.