As stakeholders in the hospice space call on the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to permanently extend temporary telehealth flexibilities following the COVID-19 national emergency, hospice providers are increasingly looking ahead to potential long-term impacts. Hospice organizations have much to consider as the future of telehealth post-COVID drives rising demand for virtual patient care.
Telehealth has become common practice as hospice providers work to protect staff, care teams and vulnerable patients during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Various challenges have come into play as organizations implement new virtual care capabilities to remain connected to patients and families amid social distancing, stay-at-home orders and quarantines.
“A lot of the shift right now is gearing up for the post-COVID rush that is inevitably coming,” said Colin Banas, M.D., vice president of clinical product solutions for DrFirst, a health care technology and consulting service provider headquartered in Maryland. “When elective procedures and admissions all come flooding back into in-patient units, downstream there will be increased need for long-term facilities and hospice care. Telehealth has played a key role in care continuation. Pretty soon I think we’ll lose the ‘tele’ prefix and it’ll just become known as simply health care.”
Among the key features to look for in telehealth systems is longevity. Though many providers turned to popular platforms such as Zoom or Skype during the crisis, in the long term telehealth systems will have to comply with rules such as the Health Care Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), according to Banas. A clinician-driven telehealth platform is also an important aspect, which can include features specific to delivery of care with remote patient monitoring tools, electronic forms, update sharing with patients, families and care teams, and provider personal identification protection with call-masking. Additionally, easy access to technical support is key for patients and families.
Some organizations are leveraging telehealth systems that feature external communication via secure messaging, automated alerts, and document sharing to boost collaboration with referral partners and interdisciplinary teams.
“One of the advantages we saw was in our marketing and business development segment,” said Bivek Pathak, chief information officer for Florida-based hospice and palliative care provider, Trustbridge. “We are communicating more with community appreciations in terms of referral increases, and that’s been a huge success for us.”
While CMS has not yet indicated whether the current expansion of telehealth will remain in place after the national emergency expires, several factors show promise for continued growth in hospice telehealth after temporary flexibilities are lifted.
“Responses to the pandemic from federal aid packages, Medicare waivers, relaxed restrictions and changes to hospice rules in face-to-face patient follow-up visits are leading to an exponential growth of telehealth through the promotion of it and the lifting of barriers,” said Banas. “Hopefully one of the good things that come out of this crisis is a new way of delivering care more efficiently and appropriately.”