The COVID-19 crisis has 'forced people into virtual mediums,' says CEO

Julian Flannery leads Summus, which offers remote second-opinion services for patients and employers. He says the pandemic has led to a "real acceleration of adoption" for virtual care.
By Kat Jercich
01:27 PM

A frequently discussed consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is the uptick in reliance on telehealth, with both patients and clinicians pivoting quickly to virtual care in order to minimize in-person contact. 

This increase has been facilitated by a relaxation of federal regulations around remote care that has, in turn, made providers more willing to use technology that they may have previously dismissed as inaccessible or cost-inefficient.

Julian Flannery, the CEO of Summus Global, an expert physician network, says this change has extended to the use of remote second opinions as well. "What we see is a real acceleration of adoption on both sides, where physicians are very willing to engage in these mediums, and consumers" see the appeal, said Flannery in an interview with Healthcare IT News

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"COVID-19 has forced people into virtual mediums," Flannery continued. "On the doctor side, they're also finding it very convenient."

Summus is among a number of vendors and organizations that offer remote second-opinion services for patients and employers. According to its website, its network includes more than 4,000 vetted specialists from leading medical centers regarding all health concerns.

"For video-based interactions, most of the time, we include the treating physician," said Flannery. The consulting physician will provide advice and guidance on cutting-edge medicine and what options might be. 

"If we do a remote written second opinion delivered from consulting doctor to treating doctor, the physician in-state can discuss it with their patient," he said.

Still, Flannery was careful to point out that the consulting physicians are not practicing medicine or directly diagnosing patients – an example of the ways existing licensure rules, currently on hold during the pandemic, could affect telehealth provision in the future. 

"If you're not licensed in that state, you can't practice medicine through a virtual medium in a non-COVID world," he said. "It's a different legal arrangement."

The next steps of licensure has been an open question throughout the pandemic. Some stakeholders, including the American Telemedicine Association, are in favor of regional compacts that allow clinicians in one state to practice in another, letting a clinician in New Jersey treat clients in Philadelphia, for example.

At the same time, professional organizations such as the American Medical Association have called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to sunset post-pandemic waivers related to scope of practice.

COVID has relaxed a lot of regulations that have been [enacted] around telehealth," said Flannery. He also pointed to the easing of HIPAA restrictions by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights.

"Companies like ours ... We're still focused on HIPAA and privacy, but there's lots of discussion" about what information safety looks like in a post-COVID-19 world, said Flannery.

"There's a big question for how regulators will handle that," he said. In the meantime, he said, Summus is also working with some hospital systems on digital platforms. 

"Various systems and hospitals – and even physicians – are at different levels of their adoption curve of technologies and thinking strategically about these platform concepts that can help them scale outside their local presence," he said. "These folks are really thinking very strategically."

"You have some leaders who are really pulling the health delivery system to a [point] where virtual care becomes a commonplace," he said. "COVID has accelerated the changing of the healthcare system," he concluded.

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Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: kjercich@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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