Telehealth: Image of Doctor on Phone

By Joann Lowry, Interagency Recovery Coordinator, FEMA Region II

You probably never heard much about telehealth prior to 2020.

The very idea of receiving your health care via a mobile device or computer was simply not possible for most, especially since government and insurance company regulations often opposed this option. Seldom has an issue changed so fast and convincingly as telehealth following the COVID-19 outbreak. An industry struggling to find mass acceptance and traction is now the “new normal” – all in a few dramatic months.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines telehealth, also known as telemedicine, as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, and public health and health administration. This can be accomplished by videoconferencing via the internet, the digital transfer of medical images or streaming media with which we’re all now familiar.

For over 25 years, HHS and other federal agencies tried to expand the use of telehealth, especially in rural and underserved communities, and for those with disabilities for whom a doctor’s visit is often difficult or impossible. Progress has been slow in coming. The reasons are many, but generally the concept was not well received by the medical community, which saw telehealth as competition to their local practices, and by patients who felt telehealth could not fully or securely address their medical needs.

And then there’s the technology needed for telehealth. Broadband communication systems are the infrastructure behind telehealth. In the last decade alone, billions in federal funding have been dedicated to connecting the United States to broadband. There have been major connectivity improvements, but not everyone is connected yet, and others do not have the broadband speed needed for telehealth conferencing. This can be true even in some urban areas.

Furthermore, the cost of broadband is prohibitive for many, especially low-income seniors, with the typical broadband bill costing $25 or more. Some financial assistance is available through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program. Please see this link for further details: https://www.fcc.gov/lifeline-consumers. Visit the HHS Telehealth website to see the many ways telehealth can become part of your family’s health solutions: https://telehealth.hhs.gov/

Additionally, telehealth requires fairly modern digital equipment and technical abilities on the part of the consumer. For example, do you know if your digital device has a camera and the ability to video conference? If so, have you tested it lately? Is the software for your internet browser current? Are your security settings set for a secure video conference? How about your broadband speed mentioned earlier? That’s what I want to discuss here – how do you prepare to make telehealth part of your family’s Preparedness Toolkit for COVID-19, the flu season and for any future emergency.

Beyond your digital equipment, the process of becoming prepared begins by inquiring if telehealth is an option with your primary health care provider, specialists, and with your health insurance company. See if any restrictions exist.

For example, your doctor may do routine consultations by phone or video but will want to see you in person to check your blood pressure or perform tests or for a new prescription. At the same time, your insurance company may cover some but not all medical needs with telehealth. Know in advance when your family can rely on telehealth and when they cannot. If you have a chronic ailment, ask your doctor if remote medical monitoring is possible with one of many devices on the market for cardiac, respiratory and other conditions. This will lessen the need for office visits, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those without a doctor or who rely on local urgent care offices, your health insurance company may have contracted telehealth providers. This is a relatively new development in the field: virtual healthcare companies often focus on remote consultations. This will solve the need to find a physician who participates in telehealth. No different than with a conventional office visit, have your list of symptoms, conditions and medications ready for your telehealth appointment!

For our veterans, telehealth has been embraced by the Department of Veterans Affairs and they have the largest telehealth system in the nation. Furthermore, some veterans may qualify for a digital tablet for their telehealth needs at no cost. If you are a veteran, make sure to enroll in the VA’s Telehealth program. The VA will help you through the process.  https://telehealth.va.gov/.

As the demand for telehealth has skyrocketed, many practitioners are learning to make the experience easier for patients. You may be asked to download a mobile app or internet website like Zoom or VA Video Connect in advance or enroll with a software company used by their practice. You may need to schedule a meeting with an office administrator or nurse prior to your telehealth visit to test your digital device, provide symptoms and medical information, and to sign online HIPAA forms. This helps many to feel less anxious about the actual telehealth appointment, so it’s possible then to focus on the discussion with your medical provider.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 was the event that brought telehealth into the mainstream, brushing aside any uncertainties about the benefits of remote health. Telehealth is here to stay, so make it part of your family’s health portfolio. Do as much preparation as you can with your health care providers and insurance company in advance of needing remote medical services. Learn about the many new healthcare options available through telehealth, too.

While telehealth is not the answer for every medical need, your routine visits, monitoring of chronic conditions, mental health and public health education services will likely be connected to telehealth in the future, if not already. The best advice I’ve heard from the experts is to embrace this change in the health care system.

Even after COVID-19 is behind us, are you really going to miss sitting in a waiting room?