From the AGA Journals

AGA clinical practice update: Telemedicine in gastroenterology



Although virtual visits have decreased and in-person visits have risen since the initial COVID-19 wave in 2020, telemedicine remains an important option in gastroenterology and requires clear guidance for best practices moving forward, according to a new clinical practice update from the American Gastroenterological Association.

The postpandemic era must balance patient and provider preferences, medical needs, quality of care, regulatory requirements, and reimbursement rules, Ziad Gellad, MD, associate professor of medicine in the gastroenterology division at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and colleagues wrote.

Dr. Ziad F. Gellad, Duke University, Durham, N.C., Duke University

Dr. Ziad F. Gellad

“Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth, and specifically telemedicine, has become an integral part of outpatient gastrointestinal care in the United States,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Gellad and colleagues penned a clinical practice update based on recently published studies and the experiences of the authors, who are active gastroenterologists and hepatologists with extensive experience using telemedicine in clinical practice.

First, the group addressed patient preferences for telemedicine in gastroenterology based on emerging data. During the past 2 years, studies in both the United States and Australia found that most patients voiced ongoing interest and willingness to use video visits, as well as satisfaction with their medical concerns being addressed via telemedicine. They also reported significantly decreased absenteeism, as compared with face-to-face visits.

At the same time, patient preferences may vary based on age, race, and other factors. For instance, younger adults, those with higher incomes, and Hispanic and Latino patients appear to be more likely to prefer video visits than older adults, those with lower incomes, and White or Black patients. In gastroenterology, specific telemedicine studies, especially among patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or chronic liver disease, older patients, Black patients, and those with Medicaid or Medicare insurance were more likely to complete a phone-based visit rather than a video visit.

Even still, barriers exist for some patients, which should be recognized, the authors wrote. Studies have found racial and socioeconomic disparities in accessing telemedicine, including video visits. When possible, ambulatory practices, institutions, and health systems should provide technical solutions and individual support to help patients overcome these barriers.

So far, telemedicine appears to be better suited for stable chronic conditions rather than acute illnesses, which are more likely to require a follow-up in-person visit or ED care. At the gastrointestinal level, patients being evaluated for liver transplantation via telemedicine had a reduced time from referral to evaluation by a hepatologist and to transplant listing, and liver transplant recipients had lower readmission rates, improved physical function, and better general health. Among studies of IBD patients, telemedicine led to similar quality of care metrics and higher IBD-specific quality of life.

At this time, decisions about using telemedicine for patients with digestive diseases remain nuanced, the authors wrote. In general, those with stable conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, IBD, chronic constipation, chronic liver disease, and chronic pancreatitis, appear to be good candidates for telemedicine. Patients who are considering a change in therapy and wish to schedule a visit for additional information may also use telemedicine.

In addition, those who live in remote areas could be appropriate candidates for telemedicine as long as they have access, particularly for video visits. Among these patients, studies have shown that telemedicine can be appropriate for patients with IBD and the transition of care from pediatric to adult gastroenterologists. Ultimately, the decision depends on several factors, including the practice setting, geography, and complexity of care.

Many times, the main barrier to virtual care is the regulatory requirement to be licensed in the state where the patient lives. Although these requirements were eased during the COVID-19 pandemic, many restrictions have now returned in most states. Some practices may now support their clinicians in obtaining licenses for surrounding states, but ultimately, some regulatory compromise will be needed to continue multistate telemedicine without additional licensure, the authors wrote.

Reimbursement rules have also remained a barrier. Despite some changes during the pandemic, reimbursement will likely shift in the future, and additional documentation requirements are suggested. For instance, it’s important to document patient consent to telemedicine, the method of telemedicine (whether a secure two-way interactive video or phone call), patient location, provider location, a listing of all clinical participants’ roles and actions, and other individuals (such as trainees) present at the visit.

Finally, the clinical workflow for telemedicine should include a few additional steps, the authors wrote. Office staff should connect with patients before the visit to address any technical issues and ensure a proper connection, set up any assistive services such as an interpreter, complete previsit questionnaires via secure messaging, and conduct standard practices such as medication review. Postvisit instructions should then be sent through a secure portal or mail.

Moving forward, additional studies are needed to verify long-term outcomes associated with telemedicine, as well as the optimal ratio of in-person versus telemedicine visits for various disease states, the authors wrote.

“Telemedicine is accepted by both patients and providers, and is associated with certain key advantages, including reducing patient travel time and cost and work absenteeism,” they wrote. However, “gastroenterology providers need to be cognizant of certain patient and illness barriers to telemedicine and adhere to best practices to ensure high-quality gastrointestinal virtual care.”

The clinical practice update received no funding support. Dr. Gellad disclosed financial relationships with Higgs Boson, Inc.; Merck & Co; and Novo Nordisk. Author Seth Crockett is a consultant for IngenioRx and has received research funding from Freenome, Guardant, and Exact Sciences. Raymond Cross disclosed financial relationships with AbbvVie, BMS, Fzata, Janssen, Magellan Health, Pfizer, and Takeda and has received support from the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, IBD Education Group, and CorEvitas.

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