Telehealth offers solution to rural healthcare concerns amid COVID-19 outbreak

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — With recent waivers from the state and federal government, telemedicine has become more accessible amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of these temporary changes could prove to be especially useful in rural areas if smaller clinics get overwhelmed with patients, or if some of their staff has to quarantine, taking them off the frontline of care.

“It used to be that you actually had to establish care with a provider face to face before telemedicine visits were an option for you,” Dr. Rodney Young at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Amarillo explained.

“Because of the public health emergency situation that requirement has been waived now, so it is possible for patients in a rural area who need care but don’t have access to their usual source of care they’re to actually establish care with us and get the care they need over the telehealth service through video,” Dr. Young added.

He said telemedicine would be a better solution than recruiting healthcare professionals from other cities, which Dr. John Zerwas proposed as a possible plan at Governor Greg Abbott’s news conference on Friday, in addition to telemedicine.

“If you asked doctors from unfamiliar or from one area to go to an area where they’re unfamiliar with the resources and circumstances it would be a challenge. Not insurmountable but it would definitely be a challenge to do that for a rural area,” Dr. Young said.

“The specific logistics of if you said, ‘Hey, Dr. Young, you’ve been drafted and you go to Tulia,’ well, you know, we’ll all do what we have to do but that is probably less than ideal taking anyone out of their environment where they’re accustomed to,” Dr. Young explained, “It’s just, it’s a brave new world and facing all of this.”

Dr. Young explained his office was quickly able to utilize an online video tool in their online portal in just over a week.

“We did not have that functionality rolled out and turned on, and the company when we contacted them said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it fast track,'” Dr. Young said this would usually take much longer.

“We went through a process that normally would have taken us, you know, at minimum months of different approvals and things to go through and actually got it up and functional within a little more than a week’s time. That could not have happened outside of the circumstances that we now find ourselves in,” Dr. Young explained.

The Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would not be enforcing HIPAA rules related to remote communication technologies during the pandemic.

This allows health care facilities to use basic video interfaces including Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, but only for the duration of the outbreak. Before the pandemic, only HIPAA-compliant interfaces that had business associate agreements were allowed, including Skype for Business, Zoom for Healthcare, and Upox.

“We are doing a lot of Zoom visits. And so that’s technology that has been available, but we were not availing ourselves of it because of those regulatory concerns,” Dr. Young said.

While this rule is temporary for privacy reasons, health care providers are hoping other changes that have been made in recent weeks allow telehealth to become more accessible permanently.

“The changes that have been made because of the public health emergency have led to a coalescence of opinion that we need to do what needs to be done to make this accessible because it’s so important. So that process might have taken years and instead, it’s been playing out in a period of weeks,” Dr. Young explained.

State Representative Four Price has previously worked on legislation relating to telehealth. One recent bill allows providers to properly get reimbursed by insurance companies for telehealth visits.

He says, in the upcoming session, lawmakers will be taking a serious look at the barriers in the way of making telehealth more accessible.

“I don’t think there’ll be a lot of push back, because I think it’s one of those areas where if you haven’t used it, if you haven’t seen it, you’re not that familiar with it, it can be a little intimidating,” Price said, “But in actuality, it’s nothing more than, you know, simple use of technology to provide health care.”

Rep. Price said he hopes the crisis sparks an increase in use of the technology, even after COVID-19 has subsided.

“I think we’re gonna definitely see more more applications in the future, we’re gonna see more acceptance, we’re gonna see more practitioners gear up and use it. And it really helps. It helps not only the folks in rural Texas who may have trouble accessing a provider, but we’re also going to see the benefits of folks in urban areas in Austin and Dallas and Houston, where it could take, you know, an hour and a half just to get to and from the doctor’s office because of traffic and congestion,” Price said.

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