Telehealth, or telemedicine, promises to create better opportunities for increased access to healthcare. It makes perfect sense to meet patients where they are instead of requiring them to travel sometimes long distances for adequate care. We know that some diagnoses and treatments will definitely require an office or hospital visit but staying healthy, keeping compliant with medications, and maintaining chronic diseases could easily be addressed with telehealth.
Technology and EHR advances are already making many healthcare tasks easier and more convenient such as remote coding and web-based training. Smart phones and secure texting are being used by interdisciplinary teams to conveniently reach members of the team for coordination of care. Telehealth fits right into the mix using technology to bridge the geographic distance and gaps in patients’ access to care.
As with all healthcare operations, we must remember the sensitive nature of the subject matter at hand. Many try to cite HIPAA compliance as a potential barrier to adopting new technology. In contrast, HIPAA laws are being updated inline with the technology changes and we are able to securely exchange information by following the rules and taking appropriate measures to safeguard protected health information.
In order to successfully use telehealth, providers must work with health information technology professionals to ensure the technical and physical safeguards are in place for transmitting information to and from patients. Information must be kept secure and private which will continue to challenge health IT and HIM professionals. Patients must feel comfortable trusting that their personal information will be protected in the telehealth format just as it is in other media formats.
Other key concerns with telehealth are payment and insurance coverage. While telehealth will reduce the costs of healthcare, there is still a need for reimbursement to cover the provider’s time and expertise provided through a telehealth “visit” and the technology needed. There are many new conversations going to Congress in the near future to address the need for funding for telehealth particularly in rural areas. One of these is a bill referred to as the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act introduced recently. Until the benefits, cost savings, and effectiveness of telehealth can be understood by the Federal Government, we will continue to see the slow adoption rate. Once these issues are addressed and Government funding becomes available, there will be explicit guidelines and criteria for providers to meet in order to be in compliance with the payment structures.
We continue to strive for the best possible methods of meeting the needs of healthcare consumers in today’s technology driven society. We must marry the best of both worlds to provide convenient and cost-effective access to healthcare with secure and confidential methods of transferring protected health information. All of this will come with a price tag and will require the successful collaboration of health IT, HIM, and compliance professionals.
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