“Can you hear me now? Good.” Much like the glasses-sporting world traveler in this Verizon commercial, telehealth services aim to ensure patients are heard—whether they’re in the clinic or at home. Telehealth is a fairly new concept, so you might be wondering what services it actually encompasses. According to HealthIT.gov, “The Health Resources Services Administration defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. Technologies include videoconferencing, the internet, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.”
If you ask me, that’s an extremely broad definition—one that allows providers and patients an unprecedented amount of flexibility for treatment and patient communication. Beyond flexibility, the expansion of telehealth adoption also offers a solution to the rapidly growing demand for efficient and effective healthcare delivery (a demand made clear with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act). Thanks to telehealth, patients no longer have to travel to their care providers’ physical offices to get the health services they need—at least not every time they have an ache, pain, or cough. In many cases, patients can seek treatment where they are most comfortable—at home. Furthermore, electronic communication can make care coordination, assessments, and referrals easier to handle.
Blasting into the Future of Telehealth
Whether you’re on board with telehealth—or not—its expansion shows no signs of slowing. In fact, forecasts project that adoption will only increase: “The number of patients using telehealth services will rise to 7 million in 2018, up from less than 350,000 in 2013,” explained this IHS article. And therapists definitely won’t want to miss out on that opportunity. Just imagine being able to fit more appointments into your busy schedule using video conferencing and other digital communication methods. Such technologies allow providers to give their patients instant feedback without time-consuming office visits. Furthermore, thanks to the Internet, patients in rural areas finally have access to the same quality health care residents in more urban areas enjoy.
The future for telehealth is bright, but for therapists, the telehealth payment situation isn’t all that shiny—not right now, at least. Currently, Medicare reimburses providers in other specialties for certain telehealth CPT codes. However, physical therapy has yet to be mentioned in federal legislation regarding telehealth services reimbursement. If therapists don’t get involved in the shaping of this legislation—and soon—the entire industry risks getting left behind.
Keeping up with Compliance
Assuming that therapists eventually get the telehealth green light, they—and all other providers—must constantly be aware of the HIPAA implications associated with this medium of care delivery. And when it comes to telehealth compliance, things aren’t so cut-and-dried. Earlier this year, WebPT’s COO and founder, Dr. Heidi Jannenga—and some other awesome WebPT employees—had the opportunity to get in on the telehealth compliance conversation when they attended the eighth annual Graham Sessions. The sessions were abuzz with talk of telehealth and the future of tech in PT. This WebPT Blog post highlights why the industry needs to be aware of the complexities of telehealth as they relate to PT: “Obviously, not all tech tools available to consumers have the HIPAA seal of approval, so providers have to be careful about the products they use. But participating in a model of online health care delivery—also known as telehealth—gets especially tricky when practitioners provide those services in a virtual setting (i.e., outside of the clinic).” Furthermore, the APTA cautions that telehealth requires research prior to implementation within your clinic: “You'll first need to consider federal and state legislation and regulations that govern your practice, risk management implications, billing and coding issues, and hardware/software requirements.” With all that being said, staying compliant with telehealth isn’t impossible; providers just need to take extra caution as they map out their service offerings.
Wrestling with the Regulations
HIPAA compliance is just one legal aspect of providing telehealth services that providers need to consider—especially in the rehab therapy space. Current law prohibits a PT from treating patients who reside outside of the state in which the therapist is licensed, which essentially prevents PTs from practicing across state lines—even in a virtual environment. Aside from that, there’s not a ton of regulation regarding telehealth, especially when it comes to PT. But with these services becoming more and more prevalent, it’s crucial that therapy providers take action to shape new legislation in the PT industry’s favor.
Telehealth services open new doors to more efficient and effective care delivery. And with all of these new opportunities, it’s imperative that providers keep HIPAA regulations and legislative policy top of mind. Are you considering implementing telehealth services in your clinic? How about now? Good. Have questions? You’re in luck, because like Verizon, “We never stop working for you.” Ask away in the comments section below.