Overcoming telehealth's lingering obstacles

Healthcare providers, patients finally poised to tap into the potential of connected devices
By John Turnburke
08:45 AM
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Variations of telehealth services have been utilized for decades now. However, in recent years, such services have taken on new life and meaning for both providers and patients. Yet, even with increased technological abilities, telehealth is still not a part of the typical patient experience, despite all of its heralded potential.

The problem: Many obstacles have made it difficult for provider organizations and physicians to adopt remote monitoring solutions. But, advancements are being made at a staggering rate. The following hurdles, which have traditionally impeded telehealth's progress, are starting to tumble:

Economic disincentives. Many physicians traditionally have refused to adopt remote monitoring services because there was no economic incentive to do so. Until recently, physicians only could be reimbursed for "patient present" activities, making it financially difficult to prioritize remote monitoring and connected devices in patient care. 

But, payment models are finally shifting. As the healthcare world moves toward valued-based care, payers are beginning to realize the value in reimbursing for telehealth services that will ultimately keep patients healthy and costs down. At the beginning of 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced new codes aimed to make telehealth more financially feasible for physicians.

By now, most healthcare organizations are at least aware of these codes and their intended use. Earlier this year, CMS began reimbursing providers for the delivery of chronic care management services via CPT Code 99490. According to CMS, with this code, providers can treat and receive reimbursement for patients who have been diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions expected to last at least 12 months. Under code 99490, physicians can receive reimbursement of $40 per patient per month if they review data coming from remote devices for at least 20 minutes per month for each patient. In addition, CMS code 99091 will reimburse clinicians for the actual time spent remotely monitoring patients with chronic conditions.

Technology tussles. Previously, many of the mobile health and clinical in-home devices were unconnected or data locked without any way to integrate into a physician's workflow. Emerging technology, however, is making it easier for patients to remotely connect to their healthcare professionals. For example, some devices such as blood pressure cuffs, oximeters and scales can now send data via bluetooth directly to a smartphone that, in turn, transmits the information to a healthcare provider. In addition, patients who do not have a smart phone can wear a medallion-type device around their neck to directly send data to healthcare clinicians.

Data challenges. When patients use connected devices, physicians can be overwhelmed with a barrage of incoming data – all coming from various sources. With the right connectivity platform, however, the mobile health and clinical devices can securely feed data into one consolidated stream. In addition, such platforms could send notifications and alerts when patients' vitals are outside of a defined range and require a clinician to take action. Or, analytics programs could be overlaid to distill relevant trends instead of bombarding physicians with all of the generated data.

As the healthcare industry continues to overcome these obstacles with technology, physicians will finally be able to tap into the true potential associated with telehealth. In fact, remote-monitoring programs will support radical patient care improvements. This is because healthcare providers now can:

·      Continuously receive relevant and actionable data, instead of periodically trying to pull this information from patients during a short phone call or visit.

·      Receive accurate information regarding patient activity and vitals, instead of information that has been filtered by patients. Because, as we know, patients tend to provide less-than-accurate representations of the reality, as they are sometimes worried about disappointing their clinicians.

·      Respond to events immediately. For example, if a patient is not taking medications for a day or two, the physician can immediately intervene, instead of simply hearing about the lapse when a negative health event occurs.

In the final analysis, all these improvements can lead to improved clinical care and outcomes. As such, clinicians can finally tap into telehealth's potential and succeed under value-based care models.