America’s Access to Care Crisis: Telemedicine Provides the Solution

Smiling mid adult female doctor gives good news to a patient during a telemedicine appointment.
For telemedicine to thrive in a postpandemic era, temporary rules regarding reimbursement and providers’ ability to fully care for the patient in any setting must be made permanent.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States in early 2020, telemedicine took a giant leap forward in popularity. Because of the pandemic and under the direction of federal, state, and local government agencies, necessary relaxation of advance practice provider (APP) supervision and insurance rules redefined access to care through telemedicine, giving providers and healthcare systems a new understanding of telemedicine’s potential to meet the needs of their patients.1,2

The decision to reduce physicians’ supervisory requirements for physician assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP) enabled all healthcare providers to work at the top of their license, education, and experience. Adjustments to insurance reimbursement allowed providers to bill telemedicine encounters at the same rate as in-office visits. Telemedicine benefits were evident. However, barriers to full implementation and continuation of telemedicine still exist.

The Basics

Understanding telemedicine terminology

Understanding telemedicine terminology improves dialogue between providers. Listed below are telemedicine terms (Table 1).3-8 Although some people use the terms interchangeably, doing so increases confusion.

Table 1. Telemedicine Terminology3-8

TelehealthA collection of means or methods for enhancing health care, public health, and health education delivery and support using telecommunications technologies
TelemedicineProfessional services provided to a patient through an interactive telecommunications system with a distant site provider
Asynchronous2 or more activities do not happen at the same time
Synchronous2 simultaneously activities: for example, a face-to-face telemedicine visit
Remote patient monitoringThe patient uses equipment to transmit data to the provider
e-HealthElectronic process and communication (email and patient portals)
Virtual e-visits or virtual medicine/careFace-to-face telemedicine visits
Virtual realityVirtual, augmented procedures; interactive virtual reality simulator
Augmented realitySimulated educational tools; spherical recordings (or 360º recordings)
Facilitated careMedical professionals with the patient ensuring adherence to the standard of care Provider present to facilitate blood pressure readings, or other needed information
Non-facilitated careDirect to the consumer without other healthcare providers needed on-site during the visit

Waller and Stotler5 described 3 domains of telemedicine: functionality, application, and technology. Functionality describes telemedicine’s utilization. An example of telemedicine’s functionality is a consult between 2 providers on patient care or a specialist interpreting a case remotely. Providers can use this technology to monitor remote equipment (eg, electrocardiogram or glucose monitor) with patients sending the information to their providers. Telemedicine allows specialists to mentor, observe, and advise other providers in real-time.

Telemedicine applications differ by specialty, disease process, and treatment modality. Telepsychiatry is an example of a specialty utilizing telemedicine, whereas teleasthma is an example of telemedicine used to treat a disease process. Rehabilitation and physical therapy are an application under the treatment modalities.

Out of date or substandard technology can be a limiting factor in the utilization of telemedicine. The full potential of telemedicine is not possible unless there are adequate connectivity and network support.5

Telemedicine and Access to Care

Initially, the appeal of telemedicine was the ability to deliver quality health care to medically underserved areas. Even before the pandemic, the variety of telehealth modalities had expanded to include monitoring, educational opportunities, and training. Bringing virtual reality into telehealth broadened the applications in practice and created 3-dimensional possibilities for procedures.7,8 The need to provide health care to medically underserved areas is an ongoing issue, particularly given the healthcare provider shortage in various parts of the United States. Given recent improvements in the digital infrastructure, telemedicine is starting to meet that need.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor