November 15, 2020 | FAH Policy Blog Team
During National Rural Hospital Week (November 16-20), FAH is celebrating the benefits telehealth has provided rural communities for years – and especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the beginning of the public health emergency (PHE), CMS issued regulatory waivers expanding the use of telehealth throughout the country. These waivers enabled providers to see patients in a secure way from the comfort and safety of their home. The elimination of certain regulatory restrictions has allowed more patients to seek care safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, rural America was facing growing challenges to access both primary and specialty care. For example, often one comprehensive care facility will serve a large geographic region. Many patients have to travel over an hour for a routine doctor’s appointment – and could have to travel much further to seek specialty care. When available, telemedicine eliminates this geographic barrier and greatly lowers the bar for access to quality care. Telehealth – particularly as enabled by the COVID-19 regulatory waivers – enables hospitals to meet patients literally where they are, allowing for more tailored treatment.
The broad use of telehealth should be expanded and continued after the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent survey, 83% of patients say they are likely to use telemedicine after COVID-19. Additionally, 91% of respondents believe telemedicine would help with appointment and prescription adherence. The use of telemedicine is so widespread that more than 10.1 million Medicare beneficiaries have received a telehealth service since the start of the COVID-19 PHE.
A vast majority of hospitals use telemedicine. According to the American Hospital Association, 76% of hospitals connect with patients remotely. Congress should act to ensure every hospital and every patient have the resources necessary to connect via telehealth. Expanding rural broadband to less populated communities is an essential investment into the health of millions of Americans. Currently, telehealth projects in rural America are helping patients with everything from stroke care and cardiac rehabilitation to diabetes management and prevention.
At the start of the COVID-19 PHE, FAH member HCA Healthcare’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Care and Research Institute rapidly moved to telehealth to provide comprehensive survivorship care for cancer patients not on active treatment. Dr. Stephanie Graff said this move helped “ensure a safer experience for those patients still requiring infusion therapies for cancer care during the pandemic.”
And while telehealth is an important service, Dr. Graff continued to say, “I also think that with the enhanced safety measures the health system has implemented that now is a great time to come in and get screening mammography and other routine health services addressed. I’m so proud of how our communities chose health and did hard things like shelter in place and socially distanced— I want them to keep choosing health. I want them to come in and do your cancer screenings and update their vaccines have blood pressure then cholesterol checked. So that no matter what the future throws at us we know the communities we serve are at their healthiest.”
Dr. Eric Lieberman of FAH member Tenet Florida Physician Services, a staff member at Delray Medical Center in Delray Beach, FL, and National Medical Director of Cardiology for Tenet Healthcare, ultimately saved the life of patient Bruce Lieberman (not related to Dr. Lieberman) by a telehealth visit early on in the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Lieberman met with Bruce via telehealth to discuss symptoms of chest tightness and shortness of breath. He quickly decided Bruce needed cardiac testing at the hospital. Upon arrival, doctors performed a heart catheterization to open up critical blood flow back into Bruce Lieberman’s heart – ultimately saving his life.
Telehealth has been a major success during the pandemic and a long-term success for rural communities. Whether during Rural Hospital Week or any other week, FAH continues to fight for funding in Congress to ensure that each and every rural community has access to reliable telemedicine services.