This year saw an unprecedented rise in medical consults over virtual platforms, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on in the United States and worldwide.
Statistics from major health care groups and payers underscore this effect. Polling 1,004 U.S. adults this fall, the American Psychiatric Association found that 31% had used telehealth services – with 72% reporting they had ventured into this mode of care over the last 6 months.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act , was a major catalyst, waiving geographic and Medicare telehealth payment restrictions for mental health services during certain emergency periods. Medicare beneficiaries gained access to telehealth services – they could start seeing doctors via videoconferencing in their homes, regardless of location. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began paying doctors for telehealth services at the same rate as in-office visits for all diagnoses and issued a toolkit to promote adoption of telehealth coverage policies among state Medicaid agencies.
Most states responded, expanding telehealth in Medicaid programs and relaxing restrictions on provider licensing, online prescribing, and patient consent for telehealth, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in May. Other federal agencies took actions during the public health emergency. The Drug Enforcement Administration allowed for the prescribing of controlled substances through telemedicine , and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’s Office for Civil Rights agreed not to impose penalties for noncompliance of HIPAA during video conferencing, provided that physicians were acting in the best interests of the patient.
“The benefits we’re seeing on both sides – for patients and for doctors – around convenience and access are wonderful,” Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, founder and executive director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation and chair of APA’s Committee on Innovation, said in an interview. Before COVID began, only a handful of clinicians were seeing patients via televideo at Stanford, said Dr. Vasan. “Now, almost everyone is. The forced uptake and change of behavior was something we’ve needed for years, and now that it has happened, I don’t see it going away.”