In 2020 and 2021, telehealth and remote patient monitoring changed the healthcare landscape. But this change didn’t happen in a vacuum. The normalization of virtual care over in-person was helped partly by the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic and by the subsequent loosening of telemedicine reimbursement and licensure regulations.
With all of this in mind: what’s the outlook for telemedicine in 2022?
Will healthcare payers and governmental entities continue to reimburse for telemedicine? Is there any way to know what the future holds for telehealth?
Changes about how society views telemedicine and virtual healthcare, in addition to new updates from CMS about telehealth reimbursements, may provide us with some insights into the outlook for telehealth moving forward.
What is telehealth, its benefits, and how is it currently used?
Telehealth or telemedicine uses communication technology to deliver healthcare services to patients. Virtual healthcare and telehealth allow patients to receive care without the need to be in the same physical location as their physician with connections via video chat, apps or webcams, phones, or video conferencing software.
Before the pandemic, access to telehealth services was limited, and the available platforms had a range of restrictions. Initially, telemedicine platforms supported rural and underserved patients to access specialists when local help wasn’t available. This meant that reimbursements for telehealth services were equally limited.
So, how does telehealth need to adapt or change to fit the needs of a hybrid healthcare landscape moving past the COVID-19 pandemic?
While the vast adoption was initially implemented to reduce the number of community transmissions of the COVID-19 virus, this has led to an active conversation between healthcare professionals about the continuation of telehealth consultations for clients in the future.
Many patients have stated that they may prefer telehealth to in-person visits, especially for follow-up care or continuation of care (chronic care patients). In a survey conducted by McKinsey, 76% of patients said they would be interested in using telehealth moving forward. This is indicative that public opinion has been trending toward greater acceptance of virtual healthcare and an openness toward the hybridization of virtual care integration with previously established systems of care.
As of July 2021, telehealth utilization has stabilized at 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels. And, even before the pandemic, evidence supported that both patients and physicians were interested in increasing the use of telehealth and remote patient monitoring.
What are the current limitations of telemedicine, and how should telehealth systems adapt to be more user-friendly?
Well, as of right now, most telehealth visits are one-on-one video chats. Certain advancements in telemedicine and remote patient monitoring technology may need to be made for virtual healthcare to stay a valuable tool for doctors and patients alike.
Advancements to improve telehealth:
- Integration with existing medical systems utilized by patients and physicians
- Ease-of-use for patients and doctors (single-sign-on)
- Compatibility with wearable health monitoring software and devices
- Expansion of capabilities to allow for group health sessions (e.g., for mental health or other)
- Multi-platform compatibility
What about medical billing and legislation? Will new virtual care legislation pass?
The CMS 2022 Physician Fee Schedule or 2022 “Final Rule” provides insights into the governmental acceptance and expansion of telehealth with new changes that promote virtual healthcare reimbursements moving forward.
The CMS 2022 Final Rule included several updates to Medicare coverage of telehealth services. These updates included several changes that had been temporarily put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which have been extended or will be made permanent. While temporary orders that allowed reimbursement for the use of telehealth were able to successfully expand the access to care across the country during the recent public health emergency (“PHE”), the future of the regulatory environment for telehealth has always been somewhat up in the air.
Some services established as eligible for reimbursement billing under the PHE will remain eligible until the end of 2023. It’s also possible that these services could become permanent if:
- the service is essentially similar to a telehealth service that is already eligible or
- there is evidence that demonstrates the clinical benefit to the patient (if it is provided via telehealth or virtual care)
With this Final Rule, CMS has made significant strides in expanding patient access to behavioral healthcare – especially for chronic care patients, rural, and traditionally underserved communities –
via telehealth, virtual healthcare, and remote patient monitoring technologies. In addition to coverage for traditional care and services, CMS is also working to eliminate geographic barriers by allowing patients to stay in their homes while using telehealth services to diagnose, evaluate, and treat mental health disorders.
So, what’s the outlook for the future of telemedicine?
Based on both patient and provider feedback and the new legislation which expands the reimbursement possibilities for telemedicine (from entities such as CMS), the conclusion that we’ve drawn is that telehealth – and the use of virtual healthcare – will continue to evolve, advance, and expand.
Don’t be left behind! Telehealth is not going away any time soon.