Telemedicine use has increased in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is gaining acceptance in workers' comp. While some obstacles remain, telemedicine has the potential to expand care delivery options and speed recovery times.
According to a recent study by McKinsey, consumer interest in telemedicine rose from 11% to 76% during the pandemic, 57% of healthcare providers said they viewed telemedicine more favorably, and 64% of providers are comfortable using telemedicine. In the course of just a few months, telemedicine physician visits rose 50 - 175x, depending on geography and type of practice.
In workers' comp, telemedicine also gained wider acceptance during the pandemic as many states relaxed restrictions regarding its use for injured worker patients. The types of changes made by the states (and CMS, which guides rules for some states) vary and include: allowing additional services to be delivered via tele technologies; relaxing provider licensing requirements; amending reimbursement rules (often reimbursing at the higher office visit rates to encourage telemedicine use); and allowing different modes of technology, such as audio-only calls.
Many of the legal and regulatory changes regarding telemedicine are temporary, and it remains to be seen which will become permanent and where. Workers' comp stakeholders had hopes of cost reduction through telemedicine, both indirectly by speeding recovery times with better access to care, and directly through lower provider fees for virtual visits. To encourage the use of telemedicine during the pandemic, many states have allowed in-office reimbursement rates for virtual visits, which eliminates the direct savings incentive and makes the reimbursement question an important one going forward.
Exactly which medical services can be effectively delivered through telemedicine is also yet to be determined. Currently, fewer than 100 medical services are approved for telemedicine by CMS, which is a small fraction of the 8,000+ services covered by Medicare and Medicaid. The number of medical services we commonly see in workers' comp are much fewer and, while some services will always require that the provider and patient be physically together, a significant portion of injured worker care could potentially be delivered virtually.
Telemedicine is not appropriate for all medical services. Serious injuries and illness demand in-person attention, and most diagnostic tests and all surgeries require physical contact with the patient. In addition to these obvious exceptions, some patients may feel that they are not getting proper care with a telemedicine visit and prefer to see their healthcare provider in person. There are also important privacy concerns and fear of fraud in both general healthcare and workers' comp.