Who knew that the importance of telehealth in complex rehab technology (CRT) would have risen to such high prominence over this past year? Surely COVID-19 was the catalyst that pushed this resource to the forefront of care.
As we turn the corner of the pandemic, let’s look at how telehealth will be a critical piece of complex rehab going forward.
Telehealth had to overcome its own reality; for many years the question of whether telehealth was even possible echoed in the halls of the largest hospital networks, insurance companies and post-acute providers. The pandemic answered this question in a big way.
Telehealth During the Crisis
Prior to the public health emergency (PHE), it was estimated that total revenue for all United States telehealth companies was at $3 billion. Many are now predicting a seven-fold growth by 2025. To put this in context; for the week of March 7, 2020, only 11,000 Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth. By the week of April 25, 2020, 1.7 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth.
While the pandemic brought telehealth to the forefront, the ongoing care of patients will be a driving force to maintain telehealth in the post-acute care arena. Patients have long faced obstacles of transportation, distance, time conflicts and weather that prevented them from receiving their clinic-based evaluations and follow ups.
Telehealth provided the continuity of care that the pandemic stripped from clients with disabilities. Clinicians have realized this tool and resource will impact future evaluations for clients.
Telehealth was once reserved for rural communities, but has since been adopted across all geographical areas. Using telehealth for clinical mobility evaluations allows an evaluation to be conducted at the patient’s home, limiting patient exposure to infection and eliminating the challenges of transportation. With fewer canceled appointments, equipment can be delivered to the patient more quickly. It has been noted that telehealth is both effective and, in some cases, preferred by clients or patients. Performing an evaluation in the home can be a more holistic service.
Telehealth in the Post-Pandemic World
Does telehealth have life in a post-pandemic environment? The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages; there are significant benefits to telehealth for the families of clients with disabilities. This positions telehealth to take a permanent space in the complex rehab industry.
When the pandemic began, many providers of complex rehab technology were struggling with limited access to patients due to closed clinics and patient fear of viral exposure. Complex rehab providers were challenged with serving these patients.
At the beginning of the pandemic, two industry veterans, Bill and Maxine Paul, former CRT providers and owners of ATLAS Enterprise Software, activated a plan they designed many years earlier called telehealth clinical evals. This is a platform for complex rehab providers to systematically address the pain points that providers experienced during the pandemic.
One of the obstacles during the pandemic was getting patients qualified through a medical evaluation for the equipment. A remote mobility evaluation service for CRT was not feasible until telehealth for therapists could be reimbursed as part of the public health emergency rules.
During the pandemic, clinicians could not get access to patients. The industry as a whole came to a screeching halt. Telehealth allowed providers to get access to the patients via audio/video conferencing. In this way, telehealth enabled patients to get equipment in a timely way and permitted complex rehab professionals to earn a living.
Advocacy for Reimbursement
At press time, two bills are making their way through Congress to ensure reimbursement continues for telehealth in complex rehab. House bill HR 2168 and Senate bill S 1074 would, at a minimum, permanently allow physical and occupational therapists the ability to provide telehealth services to clients with disabilities and complex medical conditions. This is a step in the right direction toward providing continuity of care for patients across the country.
HR 2168 seeks to permanently allow health care providers designated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—such as audiologists, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists—to provide telehealth services through Medicare.
S 826, the Medicare Empowerment Act of 2021, would offer patients their choice of physicians and practitioners when using Medicare benefits.
If you have not made contact with your legislator, it is not too late to let them know how important telehealth is to your patients. Engaging with your legislators should be a top priority for all CRT providers.
So, will complex rehab providers advance the telehealth platform moving forward? Absolutely, and all indications are favorable that telehealth has become an advanced strategy for CRT. If you are currently struggling with missed opportunities due to travel, weather or geographical limitation, the adoption of telehealth will forever change the direction of your business and the lives of the patients you serve.
More information on HR 2168 From NCART
Physical and occupational therapists, people with disabilities and family members have reported that telehealth options for the provision of complex rehab technology (CRT) have brought many benefits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
These benefits extend beyond the public health emergency, as telehealth can help overcome access barriers relating to travel challenges, lack of qualified providers in certain areas, and concerns about other medical risks.
Unfortunately, certain Medicare telehealth policies are scheduled to expire at the end of the PHE. That is why the “Expanded Telehealth Access Act” (HR 2168) has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Mikie Sherill (D-New Jersey) and David McKinley (R-West Virgina), who were joined in this bipartisan introduction by 14 other members.
HR 2168 contains important provisions to expand access to telehealth services and specifically adds physical and occupational therapists as permanently authorized telehealth practitioners within the Medicare program.
It is especially important that physical and occupational therapists retain the ability to provide telehealth services to maintain access to care for their clients with disabilities and complex medical conditions who may not be able to get to a clinic or be seen in-person for needed evaluations and follow up.
The National Coalition of Assistive Rehab Technology (NCART) is asking CRT stakeholders to communicate with their Senators and Representatives regarding the importance of these services, and to ask that H.R. 2168 be passed.
Visit ncart.us to learn more.