By Dr. Scott Dunn
A lot has changed since March. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted our lives and complicated our ability to do everyday things, like visiting a friend for coffee, attending a concert or sports event, and going to see our doctor. Thankfully, recent changes to federal and state regulations governing telemedicine mean doctors like me are able to see and treat our patients virtually, when in-person care isn’t possible. While the addition of telemedicine required a new approach by doctors, patients and insurance companies, telemedicine has been one of the biggest success stories of our community’s response to COVID-19.
In 2019 I averaged about one telemedicine visit per month. In 2020, from March to June, my five-physician practice averaged 180 telemedicine visits. According to the Idaho Department of Insurance, between March-July 2019 and March-July 2020 mental health telehealth visits in Idaho increased from 117 to over 35,000. Other health care visits increased from approximately 400 to nearly 48,000.
Going without medical care is inconvenient and dangerous. Thanks to telehealth, Idahoans don’t have to forgo important medical care. Whether seeing a doctor for stress or depression, well-child visits, or treatment for chronic conditions, telemedicine is a literal lifesaver. In June, Gov.Little made new telehealth regulations instituted after COVID-19 permanent, including diversifying the kinds of virtual platforms that can be used for telehealth and ending the requirement that services are delivered at specific sites, which allows for virtual home visits.
These changes have improved the ability of Idaho physicians to deliver telemedicine. The important decision by Idaho’s insurance providers to reimburse doctors at “parity,” meaning at a rate equal to the cost of care delivered in-person, has also been essential to making telehealth widely available. In October, Idaho’s Telehealth Task Force released a series of recommendations regarding how Idaho can continue to grow access to telehealth delivery, including the need for continued payment parity.
Here’s why parity matters: The practice of telemedicine may seem different, but the overhead is similar. Telehealth allows patients to access healthcare when and where it is most convenient. Patients expect the same level of service. Physicians adhere to the same practice standards virtually, including HIPAA privacy compliance, creating medical records, and providing patient services. The medical liability for telemedicine is the same and malpractice coverage costs are the same. Because not all health concerns can be delivered by video, physicians must maintain office capabilities to see patients in person, draw diagnostic labs, and perform needed medical procedures.
Telemedicine has been critical to getting us through the pandemic and its continuation is important to ensure access to health coverage for Idahoans, many of whom live at a significant distance from their chosen health care provider. It is critical that the Idaho Legislature take up this issue during the 2021 session and support continued collaboration between the state, providers and insurance companies that will help telehealth access continue to expand in Idaho.
Dr. Scott Dunn is a family medicine specialist in Sandpoint, Idaho, and has over 30 years of experience in the medical field. He is on the faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Family Medicine and is a WWAMI Rural Integrated Training Experience preceptor. He serves on the board of directors of the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians.
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