Doctors: Telehealth medicine becoming the norm, needs to be law

woman receiving medical care
Female health care worker explaining medical records to young patient in office. Maskot/Getty Images.

The dramatic increase in the demand and use of telemedicine will continue through the pandemic, but should also be maintained as an option afterward, according to medical professionals.

Physicians and medical groups support an Ohio bill which would expand regulation of telemedicine and even the prices health benefit plans charge for telehealth visits and in-person appointments.

Dr. Arick Forest, President of The Ohio State University Physicians, Inc., and Vice Dean for Clinical Affairs at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said the progress made in utilizing telehealth would be lost if the regulations put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were allowed to expire, and will force the health care system to play catch-up later.

“The pandemic probably pushed us forward four or five years in implementing telehealth as a way to provide care to the population in the state of Ohio,” Forest said at a recent hearing for the bill at the Ohio Senate Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee.

OSU has a history in telemedicine that goes back almost three decades. In 1995, the medical center began using telemedicine to reduce the costs of treating prison inmates. Even back then, the health system conducted more than 10,000 telemedicine visits, and they maintain 24 specialty clinics in 29 state prison sites, according to Forest.

Outside of the prison system, telehealth was used before the pandemic hit, but not nearly in the volumes seen now. Forest said the Wexner Medical Center had 134 video visits and 39 telephone appointments between January and February of this year.

Between March and October, visits totaled 272,000.

“Telehealth has quickly become a normal way of providing care to our patients, across providers and conditions — from primary care to specialty care and disease management,” Forest said.

The head of Virtual Health at the Cleveland Clinic said the health system adopted telemedicine early on, but have used the demand brought on by the pandemic to develop new programs like home monitoring for patients with COVID-19 and chronic conditions, and expanded the reach of specialty providers.

“Despite our early adoption of digital care, telehealth represented less than 2% of the total outpatient care provided throughout Cleveland Clinic in early 2020,” wrote Dr. Steven Shook. “At the height of the pandemic, that percentage increased to around 75%.”

Since the telehealth expansion bill was introduced, sponsors have included teledentistry in the list of allowed fields, but Forest said licensed genetic counselors who work with cancer programs, fetal medicine and cardiac care, among others, should also be included. Medicaid rules allow pharmacists to use telehealth, but Forest said the law needs to allow for those with private insurance to also access pharmacists via virtual means.

Supporters of the bill also include the Ohio State Medical Association, the Ohio Physical Therapy Association, the American Diabetes Association, and University Hospitals Health System.

The bill passed the House in June and had its first hearing in the Senate committee on Nov. 10.

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