Telemedicine office visits versus in-person recede to 6%, concentrating in behavioral health. Will the gains hold?

Has the telehealth wave receded to a ‘new normal’ tide? An updated Commonwealth Fund/Phreesia/Harvard University study, including data through 4 October, confirms that we are far past the point of telemedicine dominance of the office visit. Office visits to providers have largely returned to the 1-7 March baseline and even slightly above for ages 6 and above. But telemedicine visits, from their high in this study of 13.9 percent on 18 April during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, have continuously dropped and have leveled off to 6.3 percent. (Telemedicine here includes both video and telephonic visits; the sample is 50,000 providers that are Phreesia clients.)

To put this in proper perspective, the pre-pandemic baseline of telemedicine in practice use was an infinitesimal .1 percent.

Larger organizations use more telemedicine than smaller ones. Primary care practices with 6 or more physicians in the group account for 9.4 percent of telemedicine visits, while practices of 1 to 5 physicians account for 4.3 percent.

Even so, by September, only 9 percent of practices were heavy users (20 percent +) of telehealth, compared to 35 percent in April. Minimal use (5 percent or less) moved up to 39 percent. One-third never used telemedicine at all–did they shut down completely?

For those seeking to segment the overall telehealth market, the chart detailing telemedicine in visits to medical specialists is of interest. It confirms the anecdotal information this Editor has heard that telehealth remains highly popular and used in behavioral health (psychiatry)–41 percent of visits. By comparison, the next most popular are rheumatology and endocrinology at 14 percent of visits. The pandemic apparently has forever changed the mental health visit and acceptance of non-face-to-face delivery, with interesting (isolating?) consequences for both patients and doctors.

crystal-ballCan telehealth hold this gain, and develop from this base? What will it look like for the average practice? Pay the lady with the crystal ball! CMS will eventually roll back the waivers on usage of non-HIPAA platforms such as Facetime (appropriately so for security and privacy reasons). Reimbursement by Medicare and commercial plans will be a major hot button. A recent survey of health system executives presented at the HLTH virtual conference indicated yawning uncertainty at the top level:

  • 30 percent of respondents said they were unsure what their plans are if telehealth reimbursements return to pre-COVID levels
  • 13 percent said they’d return to face-to-face visits
  • 20 percent said they’d continue doing virtual visits regardless
  • 17 percent said they’d analyze the financial viability of continued use

(Nokia-UPMC Center for Connected Medicine and Klas Research, Healthcare Dive)

More on this: The hazy post-pandemic future of telehealth and From back-to-work to telehealth to retail rebranding: HLTH 2020 takeaways   

Previously: As practices reopen, telemedicine visits continue to plunge from 69% to 21%: Epic (September), COVID effect on US practices: in-person visits down 37%, telehealth peaks at 14% (Commonwealth Fund through July)

Digital health investment smashes the ceiling: $9.4 bn invested through 3rd Q

$9.4 bn is a whole lot of bubbly! To no one’s surprise in the industry, kick-started by telehealth, Rock Health’s tracking of US digital health company investment through 3rd Q smashed through 2018’s full-year high point ($8.2 bn) with a cannonball of a total. Adding $4.0 bn to first half’s $5.4 bn, it represents 311 deals and is 27 percent above last year’s oddly fading-in-the-stretch $7.4 bn [TTA 7 Feb]. Rock Health projects the year total to be about $12 million and 400 deals. 

  • Average deal size topped $30.2 million, 150 percent greater than the $19.7 million average in 2019.
  • Driving this total were “mega deals” of $100 million or more, accounting for 41 percent of all deals (compared with 30 percent for year 2019). Even with the inclusion of fitness companies that this Editor does not consider true health tech, such as Zwift (interactive fitness entertainment), ClassPass (online fitness), and Tonal (more online fitness), the 20+ remaining companies indicate a concentration of Big Capital into Big Deals. The Big Deals concentrate in three sectors: on-demand virtual care delivery, R&D process enablement, and fitness/wellness.
  • Not surprisingly, telehealth and telemedicine are soaring: $1.6 bn in funding compared to $662 million same period 2019
  • Also pointing to concentration: 64 percent of this year’s investors have previously made investments in digital health, which exceeds any prior year. Institutional venture firms have the largest share of transactions (62 percent), with corporate venture capital accounting for 15 percent of transactions.
  • Given COVID and election year craziness, IPO action has moved right along and matched 2019’s six. Accolade and GoHealth in July; Amwell, Outset Medical, and GoodRx in September. Hims Inc. is merging with a blank-check company as SOC Telemed did in August. MDLive may be going public in early 2021.
  • What is down so far this year is merger and acquisition activity. Through September, there are only 63 acquisitions, which will likely trail by year’s end 2019’s 113. Teladoc is the 9,000 Elephant in M&A, with InTouch Health closing in August ($1 bn final due to the stock value soaring) and Livongo at $18.5 bn dwarfs the remainder. Optum-AbleTo has been reported in ‘advanced talks’ but there’s no confirmation of closing; it was reported to be at $470 million. 

Note: Rock Health only counts US deals in excess of $2 million, so international activity by companies like Doro are not included.

Also Mobihealthews.

DOJ ‘takedown’ charges 86 defendants with $4.5 bn in fraudulent telemedicine claims in largest ever action

We unpack the 2020 National Health Care Fraud and Opioid Takedown. Closing out September was the largest simultaneous group of Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal agency coordinated actions concerning fraudulent medical claims. The indictments charged 345 defendants, including 100 medical professionals, across 51 federal districts, for submitting fraudulent claims against Medicare and private insurance programs totaling over $6 bn.

The vast bulk–$4.5 bn–of the fraudulent claims were classified as ‘telemedicine’ and were perpetrated by more than 86 criminal defendants in 19 judicial districts. The remainder of the charges rounding to the $6 bn were for substance abuse treatment and opioid distribution fraud: more than $845 million connected to substance abuse treatment facilities, or “sober homes,” and more than $806 million connected to other health care fraud and illegal opioid distribution schemes across the country. 

These ‘telemedicine’ claims included unnecessary durable medical equipment (DME), genetic or diagnostic testing, and prescription drugs. The typical scam worked like this:

  • Telemedicine company executives paid doctors and nurse practitioners to order unnecessary durable medical equipment, genetic and other diagnostic testing, and medications, often for pain, for patients
  • The patient for whom it was ordered had either no contact with the doctor or nurse practitioner or only a brief telephonic conversation. The person may not have been a patient of the practice.
  • DME companies, genetic testing laboratories, and pharmacies then purchased those orders in exchange for illegal kickbacks and bribes, then submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare, state Medicaid, and private insurers which are Medicare Advantage plan sponsors

Most of the Federal charges in the indictments here cite Federal anti-kickback statutes in both criminal and civil law.

The nationwide charges were executed by an alphabet soup of agencies at the Federal level:

  • Enforcement actions were by the Criminal Division, Fraud Section’s Health Care Fraud Unit, in conjunction with its Health Care Fraud and Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force program, and its core partners, the US Attorneys’ Offices, Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
  • Prosecution is by Health Care Fraud and ARPO Strike Force teams from the DOJ’s Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, 43 US Attorneys’ Offices nationwide, and agents from HHS-OIG, FBI, DEA, and other various Federal and state law enforcement agencies. 

Unpacking the actions which reveal some dizzying schemes, some of the more interesting individual cases against fraudulent ‘telemedicine’ in the 2020 National Health Care Fraud and Opioid Takedown took place in Florida and Illinois:

  • Middle District of Florida: a telemarketing operation collected the personal information of Medicare beneficiaries, purchased doctor’s orders for orthotic braces, and then submitted more than $25 million in claims to Medicare
  • Southern District of Florida: three telemedicine executives and three owners of durable medical equipment companies were charged and pled guilty in connection with more than $175 million in fraud loss
    • Editor’s note: none of the principals of QuivvyTech have been identified by this Editor in the ‘Takedown’ indictments and corresponding information documents listed for the Southern District. Humana’s civil suit against QuivvyTech is here [TTA 27 August]. 
  • Northern District of Illinois: seven defendants were charged with defrauding insurance programs of more than $205 million. One is a very busy doctor who, according to the indictment, was the top prescriber in the United States for multiple genetic testing billing codes. He worked for more than 10 telemedicine companies, was licensed in 17 states, and allegedly paid five of his friends and relatives to sign telemedicine orders in his name for medically unnecessary genetic testing and durable medical equipment. “In total, the scheme allegedly resulted in $145 million in false and fraudulent claims billed to Medicare and approximately $54.6 million paid by Medicare for claims associated with this doctor’s name.” 
  • Your Editor cannot resist the twist that ‘telemedicine’ fraud took in her home state of New Jersey. Two cases involving telemarketing, senior health fairs, and door-to-door sales (!) of genetic testing, including genetic cancer screening, had a total fraud value of nearly $1bn. A multi-jurisdictional case involving the District of New Jersey, the Middle District of Florida, and the Southern District of California also involved the ordering of orthotic braces signed off by ‘telemedicine’ doctors who didn’t speak or only briefly spoke to Medicare beneficiaries/members. $871 million purchased a great deal of real estate, personal luxury items, and nightlife events for the two owners of the DME companies involved, who incidentally entered guilty pleas.

A biotech extra. In the list of multi-jurisdictional actions is a scheme to mislead investors, manipulate a biotechnology company’s stock price, and defraud payers for COVID-19 and allergy testing. The company named in the complaint is Arrayit Corporation, a publicly-traded company (OTC) located in Sunnyvale, California. This was jointly prosecuted by the National Rapid Response Strike Force, the Market Integrity and Major Fraud Unit of DOJ’s Fraud Section, and the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. The separate Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges on the veracity of their COVID-19 test is here. For those with a speculative bent, the current value of the stock is zero.

DOJ press release. Also FierceHealthcare’s overview.

Editor’s note: ‘Telemedicine’ has been placed in quotes to differentiate these scams from legitimate provider-patient telemedicine video/audio consults or telephonic medical visits which may involve patient diagnosis and prescribing. These are now more frequently called telehealth. The differentiation is already well understood by our professional Readers and is made for the benefit of our non-professional Readers who may view this article on Twitter and LinkedIn feeds, or via Google search. 

As practices reopen, telemedicine visits continue to plunge from 69% to 21%: Epic (US)

The extreme high tide has receded–but still way up than before the pandemic.  The Epic Health Research Network (yes, that Epic EHR), updated its earlier study through 8 May [TTA 22 July] to compare in-office to telehealth visits through 12 July. The trend that EHRN spotted (as well as Commonwealth Fund/Phreesia/Harvard) continued with telemedicine visits declining as practices reopened. As of mid-July, telehealth visits, as a  percentage of national ambulatory visits, declined to 21.2 percent compared to 78.8 percent in-office. 

The new EHRN study used a broader sampling than previously. They surveyed healthcare providers of data: 37 healthcare organizations representing 203 hospitals and 3,513 clinics in 50 states. The decline in telehealth visits noted in early May continued, with May finishing with a national 50/50 split.

But in context, telehealth visits immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic were a whopping .01 percent

Regionally, the Northeast leads in July telehealth visits with 25 percent. The South has the least adoption of telehealth with only 13 percent. In terms of total office visits, neither the South nor West have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, whereas the Northeast and Midwest have.

The key to the future of the telehealth bubble bath is if telehealth usage versus in-person stabilizes for several months. But there’s another factor which has come about through higher telehealth usage. Noted in our July article was speculation on the reasons why the sudden decline, other than practices reopening, most of which pointed to practice training, reimbursement, and older/sicker patients falling into the smartphone/digital divide. The STAT article has statements from telehealth providers which are quite bubbly and quotable, with the CEO of MDLive stating that new bookings are up 300 percent and mental health hasn’t declined. But a problem now surfacing is providing patients with the right care at the right time–and fitting it into the office schedule. What visits can best be handled as telehealth and which require an in-person visit? This Editor recalls that Zipnosis, a white-labeled telehealth system we haven’t heard from in a while, incorporated for health system applications a triage intake which would direct the patient to the right level of care. Can this be rolled out in a similar way to the practice level?

Is the NHS ready to adopt telemedicine through and through–and is telemedicine ready?

This analysis by Dominic Tyer in Pharmaphorum discusses the rapid adoption of telehealth during the COVID pandemic, both telephonic and online, to keep people in touch with their doctors. Health Secretary Matt Hancock quantified the changes wrought as “I’ve lost count of the number of times someone said to me: ‘what would have taken months took minutes’.” The article goes on to quote him as saying that COVID-19 has “catalysed deep structural shifts in healthcare that were already underway”, citing as examples data-driven decision-making, working as a system, and telemedicine. In fact, to Secretary Hancock, “From now on, all consultations should be teleconsultations unless there’s a clinical reason not to.”

For all the advances, Mr. Tyer points out flaws such as safeguarding sensitive health issues, particularly for young people, use by rare disease patients and those with a genetic condition, and reaching the 10 percent of the population who do not use the internet. All of these are significant. He concludes that “in the UK there’s clearly the political will and healthcare backing for wider use of telemedicine by the NHS, despite some, as-yet not entirely resolved, technological and safety issues.”

Will the UK revert to ‘underuse’, as the US has rolled back as well as practices have reopened? (What is ‘underuse’ defined as anyway?) Will these issues be resolved or ignored in a push forward for telehealth? And teleconsultations as a norm, with in-person an exception, is perhaps at this time, and in improving health outcomes, an overreach? Hat tips to Roy Lilley of the nhsManagers.net newsletter and Steve Hards

While telehealth virtual office visits flatten, overall up 300-fold; FCC finalizes COVID-19 telehealth funding program (US)

As expected, the trend of telehealth visits versus in-person is flattening as primary care offices and urgent care clinics reopen. Yet the overall trend is up through May–a dizzying 300-fold, as tracked by the new Epic Health Research Network (EHRN–yes, that Epic). Their analysis compares 15 March-8 May 2020 to the same dates in 2019 using data from 22 health systems in 17 states which cover seven million patients. It also constructs a visit diagnosis profile comparison, which leads with hypertension, hyperlipidemia, pain, and diabetes–with the 2020 addition of — unsurprisingly — anxiety.

POLITICO Future Pulse analyzed EHRN data into July (which was not located in a cross-check by this Editor) and came up with its usual ‘the cup has a hole in it’ observation: “TELEHEALTH BOOM BUST”. But that is absolutely in line with the Commonwealth Fund/Phreesia/Harvard study which as we noted tailed off as a percentage of total visits by 46 percent [TTA 1 July]. But even POLITICO’s gloomy headline can’t conceal that telehealth in the 37 healthcare systems surveyed was a flatline up to March and leveled off to slightly below the 2 million visit peak around 15 April. 

Where POLITICO’s gloom ‘n’ doom is useful is in the caution of why telehealth has fallen off, other than the obvious of offices reopening. There’s the post-mortem experience of smaller practices which paints an unflattering picture of unreadiness, rocky starts, and unaffordability:

  • Skype and FaceTime are not permanent solutions, as not HIPAA-compliant
  • New telehealth software can cost money. However, this Editor also knows from her business experience that population health software often has a HIPAA-compliant telehealth module which is relatively simple to use and is usually free.
  • It’s the training that costs, more in time than money. If the practice is in a value-based care model, that is done by market staff either from the management services organization (MSO) or the software provider.
  • Reimbursement. Even with CMS loosening requirements and coding, it moved so quickly that providers haven’t been reimbursed properly.
  • Equipment and broadband access. Patients, especially older patients, don’t all have smartphones or tablets. Not everyone has Wi-Fi or enough data–or that patient lives in a 2-bar area. Some practices aren’t on EHRs either.
  • Without RPM, accurate device integration, and an integrated tracking platform, F2F telehealth can only be a virtual visit without monitoring data.

Perhaps not wanting to paint a totally doomy picture (advertising sponsorship, perhaps?), the interview with Ed Lee, the head of Kaiser Permanente’s telehealth program, confirmed that the past few months were extraordinary for them, even with a decent telehealth base. “We were seeing somewhere around 18 percent of telehealth [visits] pre-covid. Around the height of it, we’re seeing 80 percent.” They also have pilots in place to put technology in the homes of those who need it, and realize its limitations.

Speaking of limitations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) COVID-19 Telehealth Program, authorized by the CARES Act, is over and out. The final tranche consisted of 25 applications for the remaining $10.73 million, with a final total of 539 funding applications up to the authorized $200 million. Applicants came from 47 states, Washington, DC, and Guam. FCC release. To no one’s surprise, 40 Congresscritters want to extend it as a ‘bold step’ but are first demanding that Chair Ajit Pai do handsprings and provide all sorts of information on the reimbursement program which does not provide upfront money but reimburses eligible expenditures. That will take a few months. You’d think they’d read a few things on the FCC website first. mHealth Intelligence

ATA’s annual conference now 22-26 June–and fully virtual; announces three awards and Fellows

The American Telemedicine Association has reimagined their annual conference and gone fully virtual–including an exhibit hall and poster displays. This year’s theme is “Moving at the Speed of Innovation…. Accelerating Telehealth Adoption”–if it hasn’t accelerated enough during the COVID pandemic, there’s always consolidating the gains.

Perhaps due to the complete cancellation of HIMSS and the addition of Joe Kvedar, MD, incoming ATA President, this year’s ATA has a five-day menu of healthcare leaders and over 300 speakers in 100+ sessions. Here’s a sample from the keynotes:

  • Ken Abrams, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Deloitte Consulting
  • Rachel Dunscombe, CEO, NHS Digital Academy; Tektology
  • Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, Chair, AMA Board of Trustees
  • Thomas Goetz, Chief of Research, GoodRx
  • Jennifer Goldsack, Executive Director, Digital Medicine Society
  • Victoria Guyatt, Head of Ethnography, IPSOS
  • Joe Kvedar, MD, Professor, Harvard Medical School; Senior Advisor, Mass General Brigham (Partners HealthCare); Incoming President, the ATA
  • Ali Parsa, Founder and CEO, Babylon Health
  • Suchi Saria, Assoc. Professor, Machine Learning & Data Intensive Computing Group, Johns Hopkins University and Bayesian Health
  • Jennifer Schneider, MD, President, Livongo
  • Michelle Segar, Director, Univ. of Michigan Sport, Health and Activity Research & Policy Center
  • Jeroen Tas, Chief Innovation & Strategy Officer, Philips Healthcare

Registration is priced gently at $450. Full information, schedule, and registration here.

ATA 2020 Awards

The ATA Champion award this year is to the Veterans Health Administration, US Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has been a leader in telehealth and store-forward technologies since, well, 2002 or so. VA Video Connect last year had 1.3 million appointments. (Sadly, your Editor’s former company, Viterion, which pioneered with VA in a RPM platform, is not currently a telehealth/RPM vendor–VA’s sole vendor is Medtronic.)

The President’s Award for the Transformation of Healthcare Delivery went to The Children’s Health Virtual Care Program at Children’s Health in Dallas. They have pioneered telemedicine programs for children.

The ATA’s Woman of the Year is  Tania S. Malik, J.D., an entrepreneur and a lawyer focused on healthcare, and specifically, telehealth solutions that facilitate online patient-provider interactions for primary care, mental health treatment, and naturopathic and integrated medicine.

Six Fellows were also named to ATA’s College of Fellows. Release.

 

Telehealth and the response to COVID-19 in Australia, UK, and US: video

Malcolm Fisk, whom our Readers know as Senior Researcher at the De Montfort University in Leicester, was kind enough to forward information on a recent video interview with André Martinuzzi of the Living Innovation Project, a Europe-wide innovation group with 14 partners ‘co-creating the way we will live in 2030’.

This 17:30-minute video covers a lot of ground on the UK response to the coronavirus (the uncertainty as of mid-April), how the UK, US, and Australia have used telehealth in response, and how telehealth can ‘stick’ after the crisis, but only if we design an inclusive infrastructure. You can view the video on the Living Innovation page by clicking on ‘View Video’ on the upper right hand side, or go directly to YouTube.

There’s a brief preview in the video of Dr. Fisk’s paper (awaiting publication, co-authored with Anne Livingstone and Sabrina Pit) on ‘Telehealth in the Context of COVID-19: Changing Perspectives in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States’. Telehealth was very rapidly put into use for diagnosis, monitoring, and home treatment of COVID patients. Restrictions were lifted and investments made in communicating the availability of telehealth. However, the infrastructure for telehealth is strained, especially in the US with a mixed, primarily private model dependent on payers or individuals paying per virtual visit. In the UK, health trusts have encouraged the use of telephonic and audio/video models. In Australia, telehealth, particularly in remote areas, is well established. TTA will keep Readers posted on the publication of this paper. A big hat tip to Malcolm Fisk.

After the COVID Deluge: a Topol-esque view of what (tele)medicine will look like

A typically cheery view by Eric Topol, MD of what medical practice will look like after COVID is over. With the full court press to go remote in hospitals and practices worldwide, telehealth and telemedicine has gone fast forward in a matter of under two months. But what will it look like after it’s over? Most of what the good doctor is prognosticating will be familiar to our Readers who’ve followed him for years–certainly he was right on mobile health overall and especially AliveCor/Kardia Mobile— but not so on point with mobile body scanners (anyone remember VScan?)

When the high tide recedes, what will the beach look like?

  • “Telemedicine will play the role of the first consultation, akin to the house-call of yore.” (Terminology note–interesting that Dr. T still uses ‘telemedicine’ versus ‘telehealth’–Ed.)
  • Chatbots will serve as screeners–once they are proven to be effective (a ways to go here, as the Babylon debate rages on)
  • Smartphones will be the hub, connecting with all sorts of monitoring devices (the ‘connected health’ Tyto Care and Vivify Health model–which makes the Editor’s former company, the late Viterion Digital Health, even more of a pioneer that died crossing the Donner Pass of 2016)
  • Smartwatches are also part of this hub (this Editor remains a skeptic) 
  • Now is the time to harness technology by both health systems and individual practices, but multiple barriers remain. (This Editor can speak to the difficulties for both primary care and specialty practices in not only practice but also reimbursement–and acceptance by patients.) Device expense is also a problem for the non-affluent.

As to the rest, it is pretty much what we’ve heard from Dr. T before.  The Economist

Your Editor will add:

  • Easy to use, secure platforms that don’t put users through multiple security steps remain a concern for users. This Editor’s concern is that easy to use = insecure. Skype and Zoom are inherently insecure–Skype’s user unfriendliness and insecurity outside enterprise platforms and Zoom’s major security problems on its platform and user flaws are well-known (ZDNet).
  • Reimbursement, again! CMS has done a creditable job in broadening reimbursement for telehealth a/v and telephonic services, but coding remains a nightmare for practices struggling to remain open and with some lights on. After COVID, will CMS and HHS get religion, or put it right back in its rural bottle? Covered in the CARES Act passed at the close of March, $200 million sounds like a lot from the FCC to bankroll telecom equipment for providers, but these funds will go quickly. At least they are not delayed in endless rule making, as the Connected Care Pilot Program has been for two years. Mobihealthnews 

CMS clarifies telehealth policy expansion for Medicare in COVID-19 health emergency, including non-HIPAA compliant platforms (US)

Today (17 March), the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a Fact Sheet and FAQs explaining how the expanded telehealth provisions under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and the temporary 1135 waiver will work. The main change is to (again) temporarily expand real-time audio/video telehealth consults in all areas of the country and in all settings. The intent is to maintain routine care of beneficiaries (patients), curb community spread of the virus through travel and in offices, limit spread to healthcare providers, and to keep vulnerable beneficiaries, or those with mild symptoms, at home. Usage is not limited to those who suspect or already are ill with COVID-19.

Previously, only practices in designated rural health areas were eligible for telehealth services, in addition to designated medical facilities (physician office, skilled nursing facility, hospital) where a patient would be furnished with a virtual visit. 

The key features of the 1135 telehealth waiver are (starting 6 March):

  • Interactive, real-time audio/video consults between the provider’s location (termed a ‘distant site’) anywhere in the US and the beneficiary (patient) at home will now be reimbursed. The patient will not be required to go to a designated medical facility.
  • Providers include physicians and certain non-physician practitioners such as nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse-midwives. Other providers such as licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) and nutritionists may furnish services within their scope of practice and consistent with Medicare benefit rules.
  • Surprisingly, there is ‘enforcement discretion’ on the requirement existing in the waiver that there be a prior relationship with the provider. CMS will not audit for claims during the emergency. (FAQ #7)
  • Even more surprisingly, the requirement that the audio/visual platform be HIPAA-compliant, as enforced by the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR), is also being waived for the duration (enforcement discretion again), which enables providers to use Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype–but not public-facing platforms such as Facebook Live, Twitch, or TikTok. Telephones may be used as explicitly stated in the waiver in Section 1135(b) of the Social Security Act. (FAQ #8) More information on HHS’ emergency preparedness page and OCR’s Notification of Enforcement Discretion.
  • On reimbursement, “Medicare coinsurance and deductible would generally apply to these services. However, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is providing flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs.”

Concerns for primary care practices of course are readiness for real-time audio/video consults, largely addressed by permitting telephones to be used, as well as Skype and FaceTime, and what services (routine care and COVID-19 diagnosis) will be offered to patients.

This significant expansion will remain in place until the end of the emergency (PHE) as determined by the Secretary of HHS.

In 2019, CMS also expanded telehealth in certain areas, such as Virtual Check-Ins, which are short (5-10 minute) patient-initiated communications with a healthcare practitioner which can be by phone or video/image exchange by the patient. This could be ideal for wound care where this Editor has observed, in one of her former companies, how old phones are utilized to send wound images to practices for an accurate ongoing evaluation via special software. E-Visits use online patient portals for asynchronous, non-face-to-face communications, initiated by the patient. These both require an established physician-patient relationship. Further details on both of these are in the Fact Sheet, the FAQs, and the HHS Emergency Preparedness page with links.

The American Medical Association issued a statement today approving of the policy changes, and encouraged private payers to also cover telehealth. The American Telemedicine Association didn’t expand upon its 5 March statement praising the passage of the Act but advocated for increased cross-state permission for telehealth consults.

Additional information at HISTalk today and Becker’s Hospital Review.

100% increase in physician telehealth and virtual care usage in three years: AMA study

The American Medical Association’s newest physician survey has a lot of good news for those of us in healthcare tech. It found greater across-the-board physician adoption of digital tools, whether virtual consults, patient visits, adoption of patient portals, workflow enhancements, or clinical decision support.

While current usage was greatest for other tools, the greatest increases were virtual visits via telemedicine, doubling from 14 percent to 28 percent, and remote monitoring for improved care from 13 percent to 22 percent of the over 1,300 physicians surveyed in both years. 

AMA last surveyed physicians on their digital health adoption in 2016. Both the 2019 and 2016 surveys were performed by WebMD and examined seven key digital tools. In current use, 2019/2016:

  1. Remote monitoring for efficiency: 16%/12%
  2. Remote monitoring and management for improved care: 22%/13%
  3. Clinical decision support: 37%/28%
  4. Patient engagement: 33%/26%
  5. Tele-visits/virtual visits: 28%/14%
  6. Point of care/Workflow enhancement: 47%/42%
  7. Consumer access to clinical data: 58%/53%

Also notable was that primary care physicians (PCPs) see greater advantages in digital health more than specialists, though in top two boxes, they are equal. Multi-specialty groups like digital health best.

Providing remote care is also a driver for digital health adoption, the only one which increased several points in the very/somewhat important indicator.

Not surprisingly, older physicians are less enthusiastic about digital health, but they have increased adoption much in line with younger cohorts.

And way back in the appendix of the study, doctors look to emerging technologies to assist them with their chronic care patients, with millenials not that far behind.

Articles: Health Data Management, HealthLeaders
Study: Summary, AMA Digital Health Study 2019

Consolidation crunch time in telehealth: Teladoc acquires InTouch Health for $600 million

Announced on Sunday just in time for Monday’s start of the annual, breathlessly awaited JP Morgan healthcare conference where ‘middle America’ ‘flyover’ companies are now the hot thing, was the acquisition by decidedly not-flyover Teladoc (Purchase, NY) of InTouch Health (Santa Barbara CA). InTouch is a mid-sized company for primarily hospital and health system-based telehealth. The purchase price was $150 million in cash and the remainder in Teladoc common stock, scheduled to close next quarter.

InTouch had made acquisitions of its own in 2018: REACH Health (enterprise telehealth) and TruClinic (DTC telehealth). Unusually, it also came fairly unencumbered by outside funding–only $49 million to date.

Telehealth and telemedicine are both rapidly consolidating and growing horizontally into payers (Teladoc and Aetna), corporate, and health systems.

An analysis over at Seeking Alpha emphasizes InTouch’s enterprise business as the charm for Teladoc, leading to a purchase price 7.5x revenue based on InTouch Health’s 2019 revenue of $80mm. InTouch had, with TruClinic, built itself up into a comprehensive system for over 450 hospitals reaching to the patient, but also developed specialty telehealth areas in stroke, behavioral health, critical care, neonatology, and cardiology. In their view for investors, the news is quite positive for Teladoc as–returning to JP Morgan–40 percent of hospitals expect to increase their telemedicine budgets. Release, MedCityNews

Tyto Care partners with Avera eCARE for telehealth delivered to medically underserved populations

Following on last week’s announcement of Tyto Care‘s partnership with Novant Health, Sioux Falls SD-based telemedicine provider Avera eCARE will be introducing Tyto Care’s professional version, TytoPro, into its telemedicine service using high-definition video for virtual consults. What TytoPro will add is remote diagnostic capability and collection via the TytoVisit platform, using the TytoApp and Clinician dashboard. Avera will use TytoPro’s hand-held device with exam camera, thermometer, otoscope, stethoscope (with volume, bell, and diaphragm filters), and tongue depressor adaptors.

In a test of Avera eCARE plus Tyto Care in an assisted living community, the pairing of the two systems reduced emergency department transfers by 20 percent, with 93% of residents treated in place.

Avera eCARE, a part of Avera Health, provides telemedicine services to medically underserved populations via local healthcare systems, rural hospitals, outpatient clinics, skilled nursing facilities, assisted living communities, schools, and correctional facilities. It has over 400 providers in its comprehensive virtual health network across the US. A ‘white paper’ on the Avera/Tyto Care partnership is here. Release 

A realistic look at why telemedicine isn’t succeeding in nursing homes

It’s the reimbursement. Telemedicine in nursing homes by specialists on call seems like a natural. A nursing home resident is usually older and frail. Nursing homes don’t generally have doctors in the facility; only 10 percent are estimated to have on-site doctors. A telemedicine consult administered by a nurse or even a trained assistant can provide proactive, just-in-time care, and possibly prevent an expensive hospital/ER visit–two-thirds of which may be potentially avoidable. That ER visit also can start a disastrous and expensive decline in the resident. 

So the problem in the stars is…economics.What insurance companies pay for telehealth/telemedicine services. It varies if the patient is covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or dual-eligible–and also by private or LTC insurance. Some providers and payers are engaged with value-based care and payment models–others are not. CMS is concerned that telehealth drives up costs, not reduces them. Finally, administrators and nursing/clinical staff in the facility are not necessarily comfortable with technology in general. (Excel spreadsheets are, believe it or not, foreign to many.)

As Readers know, Call 9 couldn’t figure out the reimbursement problem nor how to keep up with payer demands–and ceased business [TTA 26 June]. Others like Curavi and Third Eye Health provide a video cart and provide on-demand consults. On the Federal level with Medicare, payments have been expanded for end-stage renal disease and stroke treatment, and Medicare Advantage plans can now offer telehealth. Still, there is no direct payment under Medicare for virtual emergency medicine. And telemedicine remains a rarity in SNFs, who prefer to send their residents to ERs ‘just to be sure’. POLITICO

LIVI telemedicine app expands availability to 1.85 million patients with GPs in Birmingham, Shropshire, Northamptonshire, Southeast

The LIVI telemedicine app, which made news last year with UK partnerships in Surrey and Northwest England last year, has expanded to GP practices in Birmingham, Shropshire, Northamptonshire, and locations in the Southeast, as well as additional practices in Surrey. The Northampton General Practice Alliance and the Alliance for Better Care are among the federations partnering with LIVI.

LIVI offers NHS and private services for video consults with a GP. Patients can also access medical advice, referrals, and prescriptions. Unlike Babylon Health, the patient can use LIVI without having to register with a new, Babylon Health-linked practice and deregistering from the former GP practice. It is now available to 1.85 million UK patients. Known as Kry in the Nordic countries, LIVI also has a presence in France. 

In January, LIVI also acquired some notoriety when their current VP of product, Juliet Bauer, departed her chief digital officer spot with NHS England after an all-too-glowing article about LIVI’s Surrey pilot in The Times–without disclosing that she was joining the company in April [TTA 24 Jan] leading to charges of the ‘brazenly revolving door’ et al.

Call9: we’ll be back — with a different model!

“It wasn’t viable in the way that we did it,” Peck said. “We were very far ahead of the curve.”

Call9‘s founder, Tim Peck, MD, interviewed by local business publication Crain’s New York Business, shed a bit more light on the company’s planned reorganization as Call9 Medical. According to Dr. Peck, Call9 Medical will be in a much larger network of nursing homes and add primary care physicians to its services. The reopened company will be backed by its Silicon Valley lender, Western Technology Investment, which apparently forced the closing issue when the company’s cash on hand fell below the amount lent by WTI. No timing for resumption was given.

In the interview, Dr. Peck returned to reasons why the Call9 original model did not work. Insurers would pay for fee-for-service based telemedicine visits in nursing homes but not pay on their operating concept of fewer hospitalizations and better health outcomes that saved money, which had a longer-term payoff. 

Apparently this led to a standoff with controlling (over 50 percent) funder Redmile, which encouraged the FFS revenue stream. “We had to do services in a particular way that in no way brought value to our model,” Peck said. The ‘change in funders’ as noted in TTA’s article on the shutdown now is in a fuller context; Redmile will not be participating in the repositioned company. Confirmed in the article is that a few former investors, WTI, and some former employees will be part of it.

In this Editor’s view, Call9 had trouble accommodating both payment tracks, perhaps because they were overly invested in their concept. In the real world, it seems odd in a company of this size and investment level, which at one point employed close to 200 people and was about 100 at shutdown. Young companies, if anything, learn to be flexible when it comes to getting profitable cash flow into the exchequer, including standing their ground against ‘pilot-itis’–especially when their major investors encourage it.

One of their earliest customers also warned them of another flaw in their model. The author interviewed the CEO of one of Call9’s earliest clients, ArchCare, a Catholic nonprofit LTC organization in New York. ArchCare was able to “get its patients’ hospitalization rates low enough on its own that paying the startup no longer made sense.” “Their model wasn’t able to move the needle sufficiently to justify the ongoing expense,” CEO Scott LaRue explained. 

One hopes that Call9 Medical will avoid those pitfalls in being too far ahead of the curve and recast their telemedicine model to improve health outcomes for our most frail, vulnerable, and poorly served. Hat tip to HIStalk.