Roundtable Discussion: Telehealth Innovation During and After COVID

| URAC Staff
A graphic showing a Doctor on a computer screen with medical icons around the side

While acceptance of telehealth had been inching upward for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major accelerant for its adoption in recent months, thought leaders told attendees of URAC’s webinar, “Telehealth Today: Politics and Innovation Converge” on July 29, 2020. 

For example, UMPC healthcare system reported more usage of telehealth during a 48-hour period in March 2020 as COVID-19 hit the United States than during the entire calendar year of 2019. 

The COVID-19 pandemic “blew away preconceived notions” about telehealth limitations as demand for telehealth surged in the early days of the pandemic, said Dr. Connie Hwang, Chief Medical Officer and Director of Clinical Innovation with the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP), an association that represents the nation’s top-performing nonprofit health plans to improve affordability and outcomes in the health care system. ACHP member companies are provider-aligned health organizations, including UPMC, that provide high-quality coverage and care to tens of millions of Americans. 

Stressing her organization wants to “maintain telehealth’s momentum,” Dr. Hwang noted there were a number of issues on the horizon, including the intricacies of payment parity, that must be addressed to ensure telehealth is providing high quality care as it is further integrated into the patient-provider relationship. 

“We need to move to a scenario where we are focusing on value,” she added, noting that there is not enough data to be certain where telehealth options are always the most effective, or where telehealth might be avoided all together.  “We need to become more nuanced” about where telehealth ultimately delivers high quality and value in addition to convenience and wider reach, she said. 

Telehealth usage will undoubtedly continue to escalate, said Chris Adamec, Senior Director at Sirona Strategies, and a consultant with the Alliance for Connected Care (the Alliance). However, the extent of that uptick is “very much in the air right now,” Adamec said. 

The Alliance is a 501(c)(6) organization that was formed to create a statutory and regulatory environment in which every provider in America is permitted to deliver and be adequately compensated for providing safe, high quality care using Connected Care at his or her discretion, regardless of care delivery location or technological modality. Its members are leading companies from across the health care and technology spectrum, representing insurers, retail pharmacies, technology and telecommunications companies, and health care entrepreneurs. The Alliance is advised by a distinguished group of patient and provider advocacy organizations. 

There are several factors in play impacting the pace of telehealth growth in the future, Adamec and Dr. Hwang said. In addition to payment parity issues, there is a challenge to navigate the various state and federal regulations surrounding telehealth, Adamec said. Adamec stressed that there are decisions to be made in terms of how much of the current COVID-19 driven flexibility of copays and insurance parameters should or will remain permanent after the health crisis has subsided or been eradicated. 

The experts also addressed the issue of audio-only telehealth. While acknowledging it has a place in the current telehealth offering menu, Adamec said he hoped in five to ten years, telehealth would be more visual and interactive. 

Dr. Hwang noted, however, that for many current patient groups, especially lower-income, elderly and rural populations, the telephone remains a very effective means of providing quality care. “Audio makes a lot of sense” for those and other patient populations, she said. 

Aaron Turner-Phifer, Vice President, Government Relations with URAC concluded the webinar stating that given the unprecedented political and policy changes impacting telehealth, URAC will work with partner organizations to provide regular updates on the evolution of telehealth as a means of patient care. 

Learn more about URAC Telehealth Accreditation


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