For some time now, telemedicine has held the promise of reducing costs for payers and improving access to care, first in general healthcare and then in workers’ comp. Until the unexpected – and unwelcome – arrival of COVID-19, this promise was largely unfulfilled. But the necessity of keeping people safe during a pandemic has accelerated the use of telemedicine across the board.
According to a recent study by McKinsey, consumer interest in telemedicine rose from 11% to 76% during the pandemic, 57% of healthcare providers said they viewed telemedicine more favorably, and 64% of providers are comfortable using telemedicine. In the course of just a few months, telemedicine physician visits rose 50-175x, depending on geography and type of practice.1
WIDER ACCEPTANCE IN WORKERS’ COMP
In workers’ comp, telemedicine also gained wider acceptance during the pandemic as many states relaxed restrictions regarding its use for injured worker patients.2 The types of changes made by the states (and CMS, which guides rules for some states) vary and include: allowing additional services to be delivered via tele technologies; relaxing provider licensing requirements; amending reimbursement rules (often reimbursing at the higher office visit rates to encourage telemedicine use); and allowing different modes of technology, such as audio-only calls.3
Many of the legal and regulatory changes regarding telemedicine are temporary, and it remains to be seen which will become permanent and where. Workers’ comp stakeholders had hopes of cost reduction through telemedicine, both indirectly by speeding recovery times with better access to care, and directly through lower provider fees for virtual visits. To encourage the use of telemedicine during the pandemic, many states have allowed in-office reimbursement rates for virtual visits, which eliminates the direct savings incentive and makes the reimbursement question an important one going forward.
Exactly which medical services can be effectively delivered through telemedicine is also yet to be determined. Currently, fewer than 100 medical services are approved for telemedicine by CMS, which is a small fraction of the 8,000+ services covered by Medicare and Medicaid.3 The number of medical services we commonly see in workers’ comp are much fewer and, while some services will always require that the provider and patient be physically together, a significant portion of injured worker care could potentially be delivered virtually.
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