OUR VIEW: New Medicare policy is a medical breakthrough that’s long overdue
Telemedicine and older patients were made for each other. The inconvenience and infection risk associated with constant rounds to various waiting rooms constitute a waste of elders’ time and limited health care resources.
The recent move by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to use its new power to pay physicians who perform consultations with Medicare recipients by phone and video has the potential to revolutionize the way geriatric care is delivered in this country.
Telemedicine can save lives now, during the outbreak of a novel virus that has already demonstrated devastating power to sweep through communities where older residents are clustered together. And it can save even more lives in the future, as a huge cohort of baby boomers, living with a host of chronic diseases, age into a health care environment where geriatric expertise is becoming increasingly rare.
“The use of telemedicine and remote care services are critical to the management of the COVID-19,” Patrice A. Harris, president of the American Medical Association noted Tuesday, “while also ensuring uninterrupted care for 100 million Americans with chronic conditions. The AMA encourages any private payers that are not already covering telehealth services to remove those limitations now.”
In a meeting Tuesday with President Donald Trump, private insurers said they would pay for virtual doctor visits with people who may have the novel coronavirus — an important move toward expanding access within an overtaxed system, while sustaining the social separations that can suppress the spread of illness.
Telemedicine — from long-distance doctor-patient conferences to remote monitoring of vital signs — has been around since the dawn of video chats. But the reluctance of Medicare administrators, as the primary change agents of the U.S. health care system, to reimburse doctors for time spent in this way has prevented the highest and best use of a relatively simple technology. Only in rural America, with its shameful shortages of adequate medical service, have pilot projects in telemedicine been fully funded.
Now — just as the exigencies of World War II prompted Great Britain to establish the urgent care operation that would become its national health network — the novel coronavirus pandemic could prove to be the shock to our system that will allow us to make our own medical history.
In Southwest Florida, a pressing necessity among the oldest old is for reliable transportation to multiple medical appointments. Telemedicine cannot remove all requirements for in-person visits to clinics and hospitals, but it can put a sizable dent in this ongoing challenge.
Telehealth holds promise to become a vital means of cultural connection. Now that medical professionals can be properly paid for adapting their practices to this technology, retirement communities and other centers that serve older adults can become supportive hubs for checkups, education, treatments and therapies.
By becoming early adopters of the opportunity to use computers and cell phones as tools for healing and staying well, our elders can lead the way in transforming our medical culture.
The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board