Virtual patient care exploded during the pandemic out of necessity, but its promise as an integral part of modern medical care was established long before. Telehealth can be a lifeline for all patients, but particularly those with limited mobility, those in in rural, economically or socially marginalized communities, and those managing a chronic illness. That is why, even though the COVID-19 public health emergency has expired, the AMA continues to champion telehealth expansion as part of our Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.
One of the primary factors fueling telehealth expansion during COVID-19 was easing many of the restrictions that had previously applied to virtual care. Prior to March 2020, Medicare reimbursed only a limited number of telehealth services, and did so only for patients who resided in rural areas and who had traveled to a medical facility to receive them. The AMA led the fight to lift these and other limits so that patients nationwide could access telehealth services, and receive them in their own homes. A subsequent survey showed that 85% of responding physicians now embrace telehealth services.
When the COVID-19 public health emergency ended in May, ensuring that the new policies enabling telehealth expansion would remain in place became an AMA priority. Our advocacy helped secure passage of federal legislation that extended pandemic-related telehealth flexibilities through 2024. Currently, we are enthusiastic supporters of the CONNECT for Health Act of 2023, a bipartisan proposal now pending in Congress that would further expand Medicare coverage of telehealth services while making pandemic-related flexibilities permanent.
Paving the way for telehealth expansion is an important consideration at both the state and federal levels, and will be the focus of a free AMA-hosted webinar on Sept. 19, the latest in our popular AMA Advocacy Insights series. You can register for it here.
Patient protection is a prime consideration in the AMA’s long-standing support of state-based licensure. It is also a significant factor in our position that physicians and other health professionals who provide telehealth services must be licensed in the state where the patient receiving those services is located, or otherwise hold authorization from that state’s medical board.
Also, we encourage those states who have not yet joined the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact to do so. Established in 2017 as telehealth began to flourish, this agreement offers qualifying physicians in 37 states an expedited pathway to licensure in multiple states.
Telehealth continues to prove its effectiveness. For example, the concordance of diagnoses made during telehealth visits and in-person visits topped 86%, according to study of nearly 2,400 Mayo Clinic patients that was published in JAMA Network Open late last year. Patients receiving telehealth services typically benefit from shorter travel time and a reduced need to take time off from work, among other advantages.
Because the role of telehealth in U.S. health care delivery will likely gain even more prominence going forward, the AMA is working tirelessly to ensure that physicians have all the tools, resources and information they need to seamlessly integrate telehealth into their practices—and get paid fairly for these services. Continued access to telehealth services is placed at risk in the absence of sustainable payment policies.
Earlier this year, the AMA House of Delegates addressed the need for greater equity in telehealth by adopting policy to expand digital literacy and strengthening efforts to reach members of historically marginalized and minoritized communities.
The AMA’s Future of Health Immersion Program and our Digital Health Implementation Playbook are just two of the many free resources we offer online to help physicians broaden and optimize telehealth services through peer-to-peer training and other methods. Our goal is to help physicians everywhere seamlessly integrate telehealth services into their practices, and we are working tirelessly to make that happen.
By ensuring that physicians play a prominent role in the design and implementation of telehealth technology, the AMA is committed to digital health solutions that advance equity and benefit all parties in the health care equation.