CDC Advocates Telehealth as Important Weapon Against Coronavirus

doctor on laptop screen providing telemedicine

While the full impact of the coronavirus might not be known for months, it’s already clear telehealth is gaining traction as an innovative and nimble way to deliver health care efficiently, effectively and often less expensively as one of the most powerful weapons to combat the spread of the virus.

Last month, as reported cases of the deadly virus began to spread from Asia to Europe and the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said it was “leveraging existing telehealth tools to direct people to the right level of health care for their medical needs,” as it stressed the potential value of telehealth in combating the spread of Coronavirus.

The virus is a moving target for health officials across the United States who reported 308 cases of coronavirus and 17 deaths as of March 6, with Florida reporting the first deaths on the East Coast. The number of infections does not count the 21 people who have tested positive aboard a cruise ship off the coast of California, the New York Times recently reported.

“We’ve seen a large uptick in interest” in telehealth in recent weeks, says Deric Frost, vice president with VirTrial, a technology firm with a virtual care platform customized for clinical trial use. If patients begin to skip going to monitoring visits over fears of catching the virus, for example, it will slow or even end some clinical trials, he notes. 

Additionally, telehealth has already been shown to reduce clinical trial “no shows” by about 30% in less dire conditions, he adds. Telehealth could also help clinical trial monitors who find their travel limited in the coming days and weeks because of virus fears, Frost adds.

Global telehealth vendor and URAC-accredited Teladoc Health also sees opportunity to bring in new members as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. "We do benefit ... by bringing new people into becoming active users," chief executive Jason Gorevic told investors as on the aftermarket call discussing the Purchase, New York-based vendor's fourth quarter earnings. "Activating new users feeds the flywheel that drives visit growth over time."

As the U.S. struggles to contain coronavirus infections, one of the lessons from China — where the disease originated and infection rates surged but are now in decline — is to embrace digital health care, other health care practitioners say.

“We’re seeing the results in China already. They’ve been leveraging telemedicine,” Dr. Brad Younggren, chief medical officer of Seattle-based virtual health care provider 98point6, told GeekWire.

However, telehealth isn’t without its detractors, or at least those who want to apply a dash of skepticism to the generally optimistic mix. For example, Business Insider recently noted “we think the tech's limitations will stand in the way of its potential to stop the [corona]virus' spread on a broad scale.” It cited several factors, including reluctance among some seniors to choose it over traditional care, consumer ignorance about the wealth of telehealth offerings, and insurance issues that might drag down adoption.

Indeed, one of the primary barriers to telehealth acceptance is skepticism on a number of levels. Some providers, as well as patients, believe traditional office-based care is superior to telehealth. Studies have shown, however, that many telehealth services are equal to, if not better than, in-person services. That said, sometimes people make decisions as much on gut as they do on hard evidence, experts note.

Rene Quashie, Vice President of Digital Health Policy and Regulatory Affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, says telehealth accreditation could reduce that skepticism and begin to change that perception and make people and organizations more comfortable with the concept of telehealth as an equal health partner.

“Accreditation could give comfort to the health care community, as well as to the public, by providing a way to identify telehealth providers that have met those standards of excellence,” he said.

Quashie cites URAC accreditation as an especially important seal of approval: “They have experience in accrediting and a long-standing history doing this. I don’t think you can overestimate the value of accreditation for stakeholders, including payers and employers.”

Accreditation will help health care provider organizations no matter where they are in the adoption process,” said Deborah Smith, MN, a product development principal at URAC. “Early adopters in the community of URAC-accredited organizations will have the benefit of the distinction that separates them from their competition. The next wave will have the opportunity to join the best-in-class telehealth providers and be seen as leaders. Then, as the accreditation program grows, it will become the standard that defines quality in telehealth practice.”

“In fact, URAC has seen increased interest in our telehealth accreditation program in the last weeks”, said Jeff Carr, VP of Business Development at URAC. “More telemedicine entities are looking to make themselves stand out in this crowded marketplace.”

Even as a nervous public and stressed health care official confront coronavirus in the coming months, telehealth accreditation will grow as an increasingly important part of the conversation.

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