The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the rapid uptake of telehealth nationwide in primary care and specialty practices. Over the last few months many practices have actually performed more telehealth visits than traditional in-person visits. The use of telehealth, which had been increasing slowly for the last few years, accelerated rapidly during the pandemic. Long term, telehealth has the potential to increase access to primary care and specialists, and make follow-up easier for many patients, changing how health care is delivered to millions of patients throughout the world.
Since telehealth will be a regular part of our practices from now on, it is important for clinicians to recognize how telehealth visits are viewed in a legal arena.
As is often the case with technological advances, the law needs time to adapt. Will a health care provider treating a patient using telemedicine be held to the same standard of care applicable to an in-person encounter? Stated differently, will consideration be given to the obvious limitations imposed by a telemedicine exam?
Standard of care in medical malpractice cases
The central question in most medical malpractice cases is whether the provider complied with the generally accepted standard of care when evaluating, diagnosing, or treating a patient. This standard typically takes into consideration the provider’s particular specialty as well as all the circumstances surrounding the encounter.1 Medical providers, not state legislators, usually define the standard of care for medical professionals. In malpractice cases, medical experts explain the applicable standard of care to the jury and guide its determination of whether, in the particular case, the standard of care was met. In this way, the law has long recognized that the medical profession itself is best suited to establish the appropriate standards of care under any particular set of circumstances. This standard of care is often referred to as the “reasonable professional under the circumstances” standard of care.
Telemedicine standard of care
Despite the fact that the complex and often nebulous concept of standard of care has been traditionally left to the medical experts to define, state legislators and regulators throughout the nation have chosen to weigh in on this issue in the context of telemedicine. Most states with telemedicine regulations have followed the model policy adopted by the Federation of State Medical Boards in April 2014 which states that “[t]reatment and consultation recommendations made in an online setting … will be held to the same standards of appropriate practice as those in traditional (in-person) settings.”2 States that have adopted this model policy have effectively created a “legal fiction” requiring a jury to ignore the fact that the care was provided virtually by telemedicine technologies and instead assume that the physician treated the patient in person, i.e, applying an “in-person” standard of care. Hawaii appears to be the lone notable exception. Its telemedicine law recognizes that an in-person standard of care should not be applied if there was not a face-to-face visit.3
Proponents of the in-person telemedicine standard claim that it is necessary to ensure patient safety, thus justifying the “legal fiction.” Holding the provider to the in-person standard, it is argued, forces the physician to err on the side of caution and require an actual in-person encounter to ensure the advantages of sight, touch, and sense of things are fully available.4 This discourages the use of telemedicine and deprives the population of its many benefits.
Telemedicine can overcome geographical barriers, increase clinical support, improve health outcomes, reduce health care costs, encourage patient input, reduce travel, and foster continuity of care. The pandemic, which has significantly limited the ability of providers to see patients in person, only underscores the benefits of telemedicine.
The legislatively imposed in-person telemedicine standard of care should be replaced with the “reasonable professional under the circumstances” standard in order to fairly judge physicians’ care and promote overall population health. The “reasonable professional under the circumstances” standard has applied to physicians and other health care professionals outside of telemedicine for decades, and it has served the medical community and public well. It is unfortunate that legislators felt the need to weigh in and define a distinctly different standard of care for telemedicine than for the rest of medicine, as this may present unforeseen obstacles to the use of telemedicine.
The in-person telemedicine standard of care remains a significant barrier for long-term telemedicine. Eliminating this legal fiction has the potential to further expand physicians’ use of telemedicine and fulfill its promise of improving access to care and improving population health.
Mr. Horner (partner), Mr. Milewski (partner), and Mr. Gajer (associate) are attorneys with White and Williams. They specialize in defending health care providers in medical malpractice lawsuits and other health care–related matters. Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community Medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Follow Dr. Skolnik, and feel free to submit questions to him on Twitter: @neilskolnik. The authors have no financial conflicts related to the content of this piece.
1. Cowan v. Doering, 111 N.J. 451-62,.1988.
2. Model Policy For The Appropriate Use Of Telemedicine Technologies In The Practice Of Medicine. State Medical Boards Appropriate Regulation of Telemedicine. April 2014..
3. Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 453-1.3(c).
4. Kaspar BJ. Iowa Law Review. 2014 Jan;99:839-59.