When the pandemic took hold in America, policymakers in Washington and governors across the country realized there was a dire and urgent need to reduce face-to-face medical interactions to limit potential virus exposure and to direct the limited medical personnel to the most urgent medical cases. As a result, the federal government and states across the country relaxed government rules and red tape to make telehealth more readily available, giving Americans faster and easier access to many forms of healthcare. By using their telephone, tablets and computers, more Americans could get the care they need.
But with several of those states on the verge of sunsetting these regulation relaxations, and the federal reforms set to expire once the public health emergency ends, we’re now standing on the precipice of a “telehealth cliff.” That’s terrible news for any American seeking medical care — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Removing these obstacles has been good policy during the pandemic and it will remain so once the pandemic is in the past. And Americans seem to agree: From mental health support to speech therapy to chronic condition coaching, telehealth enables Americans to access needed care from the comfort of their own homes. It’s no wonder, then, that telehealth visits skyrocketed during the pandemic; according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telehealth visits were 154 percent higher in the last week of March 2020 compared to the previous year. One recent poll found that more than four in 10 Americans had received treatment or advice via telehealth “in the past few months,” and of those, more than eight in 10 expressed satisfaction with the experience.
Some policymakers have feared that having more telehealth options would lead to patients overusing the service, thereby increasing healthcare spending. But a new study from the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity and the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute finds that these fears are unfounded. “While some of the findings will need a longer study window to see what happens after the pandemic ends, it’s evident that consumers don’t use telehealth promiscuously,” the report says. “Instead, telehealth presents a promising opportunity to tailor care to individuals’ unique circumstances and makes it easier for people to access essential services.”
Now, how do we bolster telehealth for the long term? Arizona provides a good example: Earlier this year, the Grand Canyon State enacted House Bill 2454, which makes the state’s temporary telehealth relaxations permanent. The reform also expands the services available to rural hospitals and those serving medically vulnerable populations, boosting their ability to provide specialized services in a financially sustainable manner and better meet the needs of their patients in real-time. For example, a rural Arizona patient who suffers a serious stroke can obtain in-person care from the local community hospital while also getting instantaneous medical guidance from a leading specialist at another facility across the country. Arizona’s approach is a model that other states should follow.
While such telehealth reforms would obviously add convenience for patients, they would also transform the healthcare delivery landscape, allowing for the re-imagining of how care is delivered. A patient who needs constant medical monitoring but is stable enough to be at home might be cared for via 24/7 audio, visual and diagnostic from their house rather than from a hospital bed. Another patient may benefit from frequent coaching to ensure compliance with their medication regimen. People in the midst of a mental health crisis can access needed counseling in a timelier manner, avoiding further deterioration and, in some cases, more significant interventions. This reform makes the ground fertile for harnessing the power of technology and medical expertise in ways that have not yet been fully realized or, in some cases, yet imagined.
Telehealth holds enormous potential for healthcare access, and while there are no magic bullets to healthcare reform, both congressional and state lawmakers across the nation should embrace and build upon reforms like Arizona’s in order to realize the potential of innovative, patient-centric medical care using already-available technology and communication. This is exactly the kind of bold thinking and action that state lawmakers across the country have the authority — and obligation — to embrace and pursue.
Naomi Lopez is director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute, which developed Arizona’s telehealth reform. She is also the author of “Unleash Technology: Maximize Telehealth’s Potential” in the new book “Don’t Wait for Washington: How States Can Reform Health Care Today.”