Texas State study traces impact of COVID-19 on telemedicine
New research from Texas State University shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an unprecedented expansion and adaptation of telemedicine services in the United States.
The study was conducted by Jose Betancourt, an associate professor in the School of Health Administration, and Michael Mileski, an associate professor in the School of Health Administration, along with Matthew Rosenberg, Jon Brown and Ashley Zevallos, 2020 graduates of the Master in Healthcare Administration program. Their research, "The Impact of COVID-19 on Telemedicine Utilization Across Multiple Service Lines in the United States," is published in the journal Healthcare (www.mdpi.com/2227-9032/8/4/380).
"The pandemic served as a catalyst, or an accelerator, for telemedicine being embraced—not just by the general public, but by providers," Betancourt said. "That's one thing that is not really apparent to folks about telemedicine: you think that medical providers, in general, would want to use it. But they reflect society. Who embraces technology and the digital age? It's the younger folks. We see that among providers as well.
"The younger providers, those who are recently graduated or still fairly new to the medical profession are all about embracing patient interactions via webcams, phones, tablets, computers, etc. It's the more seasoned, experienced medical professionals who sometimes have a hesitancy," he said. "The pandemic has forced providers to embrace this new method of healthcare delivery because of necessity."
The adaptations fostering the spread of telemedicine went far beyond the individual level. Regulatory and HIPAA guidelines, which had effectively slowed the spread of telemedicine, were relaxed to create a more favorable environment for the technology. Medical insurance providers reacted to the changing environment as well, expanding coverage to include more telemedicine options.
"There have been some things the federal government has done to help this acceleration. One of them was relaxing some regulations in terms of being able to cross state lines," Betancourt said. "For example, if there was a physician in Texas with a patient in Louisiana, there were barriers that existed preventing their use of telemedicine. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service, they relaxed those restrictions around March and April. As a result, telemedicine became much easier to use. The reluctance that existed pre-COVID was overcome by necessity."
The COVID-19 pandemic thrust telemedicine into uncharted territory. Telemedicine's capabilities continue to be refined as best practices are codified. In light of this, the research team concludes that legislative and industry leaders would be prudent to re-examine the benefits of telemedicine to remove barriers to its application not just in times of public health crises, but also for normal and customary clinical practice.