A strong roster of policy drivers and thought leaders made a powerful case for telehealth at the in April in Washington, D.C.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, the first keynote speaker, told attendees: “Unfortunately, as you all know, too many Americans right now are falling behind when it comes to the availability of affordable, high-quality healthcare, it’s difficult-to-impossible to find specialists in many of the rural communities across this country. Even basic care is out of reach, as we see a lot of rural hospitals closing by the dozen.”
“Thankfully, telehealth is well positioned to make a difference in this area,” he said. Carr discussed the , which the FCC is funding to subsidize the cost of broadband “in areas where it’s just too expensive for the private sector to do that.” Carr has seen the positive impact of telehealth on site visits to a number of out of the way locations, he said, including Alaska and South Dakota.
“This summer I was on an island called Unalaska about halfway out the Aleutian Island Chain in Alaska, in a small town called Dutch Harbor,” he said. “Its only connection is a satellite broadband connection facility that is supported through the FCC’s programs, [and] it’s bringing affordable care right to the island.”
Carr also singled out a nursing facility in a small town called Lennox in South Dakota where, thanks in part to broadband and telehealth capabilities, “people can stay in their local community and get high-quality care at that brick-and-mortar [nursing] facility.”
“Telemedicine and telehealth are so important” and will only continue to expand by addressing provider shortages in rural areas and making access more convenient for patients in urban areas, agreed Shawn Griffin, M.D., president and CEO, URAC. The FCC appears to be “looking for the examples that drive innovation,” Griffin added.
“There’s a lot of openness to experimentation and looking at telemedicine,” said Laura McWright, deputy director, Seamless Care Models Group, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), who delivered the second keynote address.
Calling herself a big proponent, McWright stressed that telehealth affords patients greater choice on how to get their care. “It puts them in the driver’s seat,” she said, “It can be a real lifeline.”
To some degree, McWright sought to deemphasize the traditional view of telehealth as mostly benefitting rural regions of the country. “It’s more about serving the underserved,” wherever they may live, she said.
Carr challenged the telehealth industry to take things to the next level. “We think we need to be focused more on what we call connected care, remote patient monitoring technologies,” he said, “so that when patients leave the brick-and-mortar facility, they continue to have access to high-quality care.”
However, there are some potential dangers associated with the relatively quick expansion of telehealth, Griffin said. “Frankly, some people will enter the field more to make money than about health of the patient,” he said. And new providers may also be dazzled by the “latest shiny toy” in technology.
Fortunately, accreditation can play a critical role, he told attendees. Accreditation can be a “good housekeeping seal” that shows a healthcare organization is putting patients first. “You don’t have to start from scratch, we bring education to you, showing you what others are doing,” he says.
Carr stressed that while telehealth’s cost savings are exciting, they should not be the driver. “This is not just about the bottom line and saving money,” he said. He cited studies on remote-based monitoring operations conducted by the Veterans Health Administration that found significant reductions in mortality and hospitalization related to treating heart failure.
Telehealth proponents should be careful about overreach, though. Congress has made it clear telehealth should be a choice available when appropriate but not an automatic replacement for face-to-face patient visits, McWright said. “Telehealth won’t solve all the problems,” she added,” but it is part of the solution.”