How will telehealth fare after COVID-19?

How will telehealth fare after COVID-19?
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Earlier this year, experts in children’s mental health gathered in Columbus, Ohio to talk about a pediatric crisis. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in young people 10-19 years old. Half of the mental illnesses start by the age of 14. One in five children is living with a significantly impairing mental illness.

The 2020 Behavioral Health Summit, hosted by Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital Association, focused on building regionally coordinated ways of helping children who need it. Over and over again, these mental health leaders talked about the potential of telehealth.

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Approximately 70 percent of American counties don’t have a single child psychiatrist, and telehealth could be a crucial tool for reaching families — if only state governments and private insurers would relax certain regulations and reimburse for services at rates that would make telehealth sustainable.

For a reason that no one would have predicted or wished for, this is exactly what is happening all over the United States. Where I live and work, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Director of Health Dr. Amy Acton and Medicaid Director Maureen Corcoran have rightly earned praise for their early, decisive action to respond to COVID-19. That includes emergency rules allowing for greater access to telehealth for people covered by Medicaid.

At this moment, telehealth lets people receive necessary care without increasing their risk of infection by leaving their homes. What happens when this moment is over, though? Should we advocate for the emergency rules in Ohio and other states to become the new normal? 

Nationwide Children’s has learned a few lessons quickly. Telehealth is well-suited to mental health care. It helps overcome barriers like poor access to transportation, and some children feel more comfortable receiving care at home than they do in a provider’s office. Telehealth can be an important tool for other services as well, from primary care to gastroenterology.

On the other hand, telehealth is not a panacea. It cannot replace face-to-face visits in many cases, even in behavioral health care. Some families have limited access to technology, and telehealth is not a solution for them – unless government, health care systems and others take the extra step to help give them access. There are challenges to the protection of personal health information that doesn’t exist offline.

We think certain regulatory actions taken in Ohio during the COVID-19 response, mirrored across the country, can be thoughtfully extended after the emergency is over: 

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  • Relaxing requirements on where a patient must physically be during a telehealth appointment has been enormously helpful. Patients should be able to receive services at home. 

  • Expanding the list of people who can provide telehealth has been useful, because many trained professionals — not just physicians — can provide counseling, along with occupational, speech, physical and other therapies.

  • Broadening the list of treatments and conditions that can be reimbursed has been effective. Our physicians have found that meaningful care can be provided in many situations.

Until this emergency is over, telehealth will play an important role in providing care. It should play a role afterward as well. 

We must take advantage of the resources we have created and the lessons we have all learned. The new telehealth frontier is here. It will be the responsibility of health care, governments, insurance companies and many others to make sure we use our new technologies to help the people we serve in a post-pandemic world.      

Tim Robinson is the CEO of Nationwide Children’s Hospital.