Why Virtual Care is Flourishing During COVID-19 and Why We Can Never Go Back

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Have you ever woken up with a sore throat and used your phone to get a virtual visit? The odds are it’s not available to you, and there is a reason for that. You may be hearing about how virtual care, often described as telehealth or telemedicine, is beneficial during COVID-19 and how health systems are offering virtual access like never before. There’s a reason for that, too.

For the past few weeks I’ve seen Facebook posts daily from former nursing colleagues in metro Detroit, one of the hardest hit areas in the country, as they provide front-line care to patients with COVID-19. It makes me very proud to call these nurses my friends. As a former emergency department nurse, I recall the feeling of satisfaction knowing that I’ve helped someone on the worst day of their life. One of the best parts of being a nurse is knowing you matter to the only person in health care that truly matters: the patient.    

Several years ago I made the difficult decision to no longer perform bedside nursing and become a nurse administrator. The biggest loss from my transition is the feeling that what I do matters to the patient. COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to rethink the role we play in health care and what the real priority should be. Things that were top priorities three months ago have been rightfully cast aside to either care for patients in a pandemic or prepare for the unknown future of, “When is our turn?” For me, COVID-19 has reignited the feeling that what I do matters as virtual care has become a powerful tool on the forefront of care during this crisis. It has also shown that many of the powerful rules and regulations that limit virtual care are not needed and should be discarded permanently.      

When I became the director of virtual care at our organization in 2015 I knew nothing about telehealth. Sure, I had seen a stroke robot in some Emergency Departments, and I had some friends that told me their insurance company lets them FaceTime a doctor for free (spoiler alert: it’s not FaceTime). I was tech-savvy from a consumer perspective and a tech novice from an IT perspective. Nevertheless, my team and I spent the next few years learning as we built one of the higher volume virtual care networks in the state of Michigan. 

We discovered a lot of barriers that keep virtual care from actually making the lives of patients and providers better and we also became experts in working around those barriers.  But, there were two obstacles that we could not overcome: government regulation and insurance provider willingness to cover virtual visits. These two barriers effectively cripple most legitimate attempts to provide value-added direct-to-consumer virtual care, which I define as using virtual care technologies to provide care outside of our brick-and-mortar facilities, most commonly in the patient home.

The need to social distance, cancel appointments, close provider offices, keep from overloading emergency departments and urgent cares and shelter in place created instant demand for direct-to-consumer virtual care. In all honesty, I’ve always considered direct-to-consumer virtual care to be the flashy, must-have holiday gift of the year that organizations are convinced will be the way of the future. If a health system wants to provide on-demand access to patients for low-complexity acute conditions, they will easily find plenty of vendors that will sell them their app and their doctors and put the health system’s logo on it. What a health system will struggle with is to find is enough patient demand to cover the high cost. Remember my friends from earlier that told me about the app their insurance gave them? Nearly all of them followed that up by telling me they’ve never actually used it. I am fortunate that I work for an organization that understands this and instead focuses on how can we provide care that our patients actually want and need from the doctors they want to see.

Ironically, this fiscal year we had a corporate top priority around direct-to-consumer virtual care. We wanted to expand what we thought were some successful pilots and perform 500 direct-to-consumer visits. This year has been one of the hardest of my leadership career because, frankly, up until a month ago I was about to fail on this top priority. With only four months left, we were only about halfway there. The biggest problem we ran into was that every great idea a physician brought to me was instantly dead in the water because practically no insurance company would pay for it. 

There are (prior to COVID-19) a plethora of rules around virtual care billing but the simplest way to summarize it is that most virtual care will only be paid if it happens in a rural location and inside of a health care facility. It is extremely limited what will be paid for in the patient home and most of it is so specific that the average patient isn’t eligible to get any in-home virtual care. Therefore, most good medical uses for direct-to-consumer care would be asking the patient to pay cash or the physician to forgo reimbursement for a visit that would be covered if it happened in office. Add to that the massive capital and operating expenses it takes to build a virtual care network and you can see why these programs don’t exist. A month ago I was skeptical we’d have a robust direct-to-consumer program any time soon and then COVID-19 hit.

When COVID-19 started to spread rapidly in the United States, regulations and reimbursement rules were being stripped daily. The first change that had major impact is when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that they would temporarily begin reimbursing for virtual visits conducted in the patient’s home for COVID-19 and non-COVID related visits. We were already frantically designing a virtual program to handle the wave of COVID-19 screening visits that were overloading our emergency departments and urgent cares.  We were having plenty of discussions around reimbursement for this clinic: Do we attempt to bill insurances knowing they will likely deny, do we do a cash clinic model or do we do this as a community benefit and eat the cost? The CMS waiver gave us hope that we would be compensated for diverting patients away from reimbursed visits to a virtual visit that is more convenient for the patient and aligns with the concept of social distancing. Realistically we don’t know if we will be paid for any of this. We are holding all of the bills for at least 90 days while the industry sorts out the rules. 

I was excited by the reimbursement announcement because I knew we had eliminated one of the biggest direct-to-consumer virtual care barriers. However, I was quickly brought back to reality when I was reminded that HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) still existed. I had this crazy idea that during a pandemic we should make it as easy as possible for people to receive virtual care and that the best way to do that was to meet the patient on the device they are most comfortable with and the application (FaceTime, Facebook, Skype, etc.) that they use every day. The problem is nearly every app the consumer uses on a daily basis is banned by HIPAA because “it’s not secure.” I’m not quite sure what a hacker stands to gain by listening into to my doctor and me talk about how my kids yet again gave me strep throat but apparently the concern is great enough to stifle the entire industry. Sure, not every health care discussion is as low-key as strep throat and a patient may want to protect certain topics from being discussed over a “non-secure” app but why not let the patient decide through informed consent? Regulators could also abandon this all-or-nothing approach and lighten regulations surrounding specific health conditions. The idea that regulations change based on medical situation is not new. 

For example, in my home state of Michigan, adolescents are essentially considered emancipated if it involves sexual health, mental health or substance abuse. Never mind that this same information is freely given over the phone by every office around the country daily without issue, but I digress. While my job is to innovate new pathways for care, our lawyer’s job is to protect the organization and he, along with IT security, rightfully shot down my consumer applications idea. A few days later I legitimately screamed out loud in joy when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would use discretion on enforcing HIPAA compliance rules and specifically allowed for use of consumer applications. The elimination of billing restrictions and HIPAA regulations changed what is possible for health care organizations to offer virtually. Unfortunately both changes are listed as temporary and will likely be removed when the pandemic ends.

Six days after the HIPAA changes were announced, we launched a centralized virtual clinic for any patient that wanted a direct-to-consumer video visit to be screened by a provider for COVID-19. It allows patients to call in without a referral and most patients are on-screen within five minutes of clicking the link we text them. They don’t have to download an app, create an account or even be an established patient of our health system. It saw over 900 patients in the first 12 days it was open. That is 900 real patients that received care from a physician or advanced practice provider without risking personal exposure and without going to an already overwhelmed ED or urgent care. 

To date, 70 percent of the patients seen by the virtual clinic did not meet CDC testing criteria for COVID-19. I don’t believe we could have reached even half of these patients had the consumer application restrictions been kept. A program like this almost certainly wouldn’t exist if not for the regulations being lifted and even if it did, it would have taken six to 12 months to navigate barriers and implement in normal times. Sure, the urgency of a pandemic helps but the impact of provider, patients, regulators and payors being on the same page is what fueled this fire. 

During the virtual clinic’s first two weeks, my team turned its attention to getting over 300 providers across 60+ offices virtual so they could see their patients at home. Imagine being an immunocompromised cancer patient right now and being asked to leave your home and be exposed to other people in order to see your oncologist. Direct-to-consumer virtual care is the best way to safely care for these patients and without these temporary waivers it wouldn’t be covered by insurance even if you did navigate the clunky apps that are HIPAA compliant. Do we really think the immunocompromised cancer patient feels any more comfortable every normal flu season? Is it any more appropriate to ask them to risk exposure to the flu than it is to COVID-19? And yet we deny them this access in normal times and it quite possibly will be stripped away from them when this crisis is over. Now 300 to 400 patients per day in our health system are seen virtually by their own primary care doctor or specialist for non-COVID related visits.  Not a single one of these would have been reimbursed one month ago and I am highly skeptical I would have gotten approval to use the software that connects us to the patient. Lastly, recall that prior to COVID-19, our system had only found 250 total patients that direct-to-consumer care was value-added and wasn’t restricted by regulation or reimbursement.

COVID-19 has been a wake-up call to the whole country and health care is no exception. It has put priorities in perspective and shined a light on what is truly value-added. For direct-to-consumer virtual care it has shown us what is possible when we get out of our own way. If a regulation has to be removed to allow for care during a crisis then we must question why it exists in the first place. HIPAA regulation cannot go back to its antiquated practices if we are truly going to shift the focus to patient wellness. CMS and private payors must embrace value-added direct-to-consumer virtual care and allow patients the access they deserve. COVID-19 has forced this industry forward, we cannot allow it to regress and be forgotten when this is over.

Tom Wood is the director of trauma and virtual care for MidMichigan Health, a non-profit health system headquartered in Midland, Michigan, affiliated with Michigan Medicine, the health care division of the University of Michigan. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

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