Telemedicine got an additional boost under the $8.3 billion emergency funding measure from Congress, which loosened restrictions on its use to treat people covered under the federal Medicare program. At a news conference on Monday, Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, praised the government’s efforts to expand the use of telemedicine under Medicare, the federal program for people 65 and older.
In a meeting on Tuesday at the White House with President Trump, private health insurers also said they would pay for the virtual visits for people who may have coronavirus to improve access to care for their customers.
By using their phone or computer, patients will be able to get guidance about whether they need to be seen or tested instead of showing up unannounced at the emergency room or doctor’s office. Patients, particularly those who would be at high risk for a serious illness if they were infected, can also opt to substitute a trip to a doctor’s office with a virtual visit when it is a routine check in with a specialist or a primary care doctor. That way they can avoid crowded waiting rooms and potential infection.
When Rush admitted a student last week who was believed to have the virus, the hospital was able to prepare for his arrival by clearing the ambulance bay of people and vehicles to protect patients and hospital staff from possible infection. Taken to an isolation room, he was examined by Dr. Paul Casey, an emergency room physician, and a nurse, both in protective gear.
An infectious disease specialist was consulted over an iPad. The patient, who did have the virus, was released last Friday, and Rush was able to avoid the fate of other hospitals in the United States, where patients with Covid-19 led to the widespread quarantine of health care workers.
“When the news of coronavirus broke last month, we saw the opportunity,” Dr. Casey said.
Health systems are racing to adapt and even develop virtual services that can serve as their front line for patients. “Telehealth is being rediscovered,” said Dr. Peter Antall, the chief medical officer for AmWell, a company based in Boston that is working with health systems across the country. “Everybody recognizes this is an all hands on deck moment,” he said. “We need to scale up wherever we can.”