Hospices Turn to Telehealth to Reach Patients During COVID-19 Outbreak

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to take shape, hospices are increasingly using telehealth services to limit physical contact with patients and practice social distancing. Strategies to implement this method of support to patients and their families are evolving during the worldwide health emergency.

Hospices around the country are working to reduce risk of exposure to the coronavirus among their vulnerable patient populations. Increased use of telemedicine is one of the various tactics that providers are employing.

“Telemedicine allows one to build connection and reduce isolation, helping more people,” said Brian Mistler, chief operating officer for California-based palliative care provider ResolutionCare. “Those of us who provide hospice and palliative care understand how central relationships are to good care. When done properly, telemedicine becomes transparent and allows for even stronger relationship development.”

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While Medicare telehealth benefits gradually were expanded during the last couple years, the COVID-19 outbreak placed a critical need for change. The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently expanded Medicare coverage to enable beneficiaries to receive an expanded range of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic.

“These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a health care facility so that they can limit risk of exposure and spread of this virus,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. “Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.”

Hospices have called on CMS to allow them to certify and recertify patients for hospice via telehealth rather than in face-to-face encounters, but the agency to date has not approved such a provision..

Prior to the CMS announcement, telehealth service coverage for Medicare beneficiaries was limited to routine visits in certain circumstances such as patients in rural areas with limited access to facilities. The revised changes from CMS expand telehealth benefits for increased availability and flexibility of services in any healthcare setting, including hospices.

Navigating the telehealth benefit changes is one of many challenges hospices face during the COVID-19 pandemic, and strategies to increasingly provide these services are evolving.

“Many more services can be provided by telehealth than we are culturally accustomed to thinking about,” Mistler told Hospice News. “COVID is teaching the field which meetings really could have been an email, and which interventions really could be offered remotely. Organizations that provide telehealth visits for those who are most vulnerable is a key part of the responsible response to pandemics.”

Telephonic communications and video technology through devices and smartphones are just some of the various methods hospice workers are employing to assess the needs of patients and their families. Telemedicine practices like these allow for better access as well as reduced costs and increased savings during the outbreak. Providers can see and treat more patients with the same or less resources involved than in-person care methods, according to Mistler.

The impact of rising telemedicine utilization could extend beyond the current outbreak. Telehealth’s effectiveness will continue to evolve with the ability to better assess and predict patient needs, and also increase the share of information and communication among provider teams and referral sources.

“I am convinced we’ll see more and more telehealth use by hospices in the weeks and years ahead, and CMS taking clear steps to support it,” said Mistler. “It’s about what’s best for those we serve.”

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