Amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump announced that the federal government will remove certain federal barriers to telehealth access. Now, Medicare beneficiaries can access a range of medical providers remotely using a phone or computer instead of having to visit a doctor in person. This is a critical reform, as elderly Medicare recipients are some of the most vulnerable to coronavirus exposure.
However, this is only the beginning of telehealth expansion in the coming days.
Telehealth is already playing a significant role in diagnosing and monitoring patients with the coronavirus in hospitals, and its importance will only continue to grow. As worries mount over hospital capacity, patient access to testing, and continued care for vulnerable citizens with other life-threatening conditions, the next few months will likely prove what we’ve already known to be true: It’s time to open the telehealth floodgates.
Beyond providing crucial medical care in the time of social distancing, telehealth will be a lifeline for those who already live far away from medical care.
Roughly 60 million citizens live in rural parts of the country, and many already have limited access to medical services. For these closed-off populations, access to telehealth is more vital now than ever — especially as the number of available hospital beds starts to dwindle. The ability to see and treat patients using technology will drastically affect how well our society can recover from the coronavirus.
To further supercharge virus response efforts beyond the president’s announcement, states should also allow doctors from out of state to provide telehealth services. In other words, policymakers should increase medical license reciprocity, meaning that more states ought to allow medical professionals licensed in other states to work within their borders without needing a new license.
This will help to reduce the burden on medical professionals in dense areas and will be particularly helpful in areas with high numbers of confirmed cases. Doctors in Idaho, for example, could review cases from patients in Washington state, where a high number of coronavirus cases are already cause for shortage concerns.
There is precedent for this.
Last year, Arizona became the first state to allow new residents to transfer their professional license to the Grand Canyon State. Many governors have recently made similar declarations. Indeed, state agencies are being directed to enable medical professionals licensed elsewhere to practice in their states. This includes fast-tracking temporary licenses. These decisions are laudable but might have been easier to implement had an Arizona-type system already existed in states across the country.
Further, states should allow doctors to review and prioritize cases in the telehealth pipeline.
Video and phone calls with doctors are the most common telehealth practice, but store-and-forward telehealth services, which allow doctors to review logged cases on their own time without speaking in real-time to a patient, are still banned in many states.
Store-and-forward services allow flexibility, can increase telehealth’s efficiency, and reduces the competition for face time with a doctor in less pressing cases. This method of telehealth is often restricted in states, ostensibly due to safety concerns, but research shows that it offers broad benefits.
Finally, pharmacists and advanced practice nurses should be able to prescribe certain medications and offer temporary refill extensions for routine medications.
States have successfully dabbled in allowing pharmacists to prescribe or furnish things such as vaccinations, opioid antagonists, and even hormonal birth control directly to patients. Additionally, at CVS pharmacies in 34 states, customers can get a one-time emergency prescription renewal for a routine medication for up to 90 days.
Safe and effective pharmacy access increases access to basic services, especially in rural or remote areas. Now more than ever, states must ensure they are allowing pharmacists to contribute to the fullest extent of their expertise to combat health concerns in the coming days.
While the country is facing a dire public health crisis, these are a few small changes that have the potential to make a big impact and ease the strain on the medical system. Policymakers should make sure now more than ever that medical professionals can exercise their professional autonomy to the fullest extent — so that millions can access the healthcare they will soon desperately need.
Courtney M. Joslin is a commercial freedom fellow at the R Street Institute. Shoshana Weissmann is the senior manager of digital media and a fellow at R Street.