10 years in 2 months: prognosticating the longer-term effect of COVID-19 on telehealth, practices, and hospitals

crystal-ballThis Editor recounted last night in the article below on The TeleDentists’ fresh agreements with Cigna and Anthem the observation of a former associate who has been in the thick of the remote patient monitoring wars for some years that telehealth/telemedicine has progressed 10 years in 2 months. Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), stated to the Wall Street Journal (paywalled),  “I think the genie’s out of the bottle on this one. I think it’s fair to say that the advent of telehealth has been just completely accelerated, that it’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there’s absolutely no going back.” Even in a short period of time, CMS-reported telehealth visits as of 28 March trebled from 100,000 to 300,000. When the April numbers are in, it would not be surprising to see it grow well into seven figures.

The genie may be out of the bottle, but what will the genie do? Genies are, after all, unpredictable, and fly around.  Out of the smoke, some educated guesses:

  • Insecure, non-HIPAA compliant audio/video platforms will be the first which should be struck from CMS approval. Zoom has become a hackfest, with all sorts of alerts from mobile providers like Verizon on how to secure your phone. (An organization of which this Editor is a member had a panel this week completely disrupted by a hacker in five minutes.) Skype’s problems are well known. The winners here will be telehealth platforms that integrate well with EHRs, population health platforms (or may be part of population health platforms), and have robust security.
  • Primary care practices and specialists, who’ve been surviving on non-F2F visits, will be adjusting their practices to patient demand, and integrating telehealth with physical visits in a way that their patients will prefer. This means a search for integration of EMRs/EHRs with secure platforms and reconfiguring areas such as care coordination. If planned correctly, this could create better management of patients with multiple chronic conditions.
  • Actual physical visits will rebound, creating financial pressure on Medicare, hospitals, and private payers. How many people’s health has declined in two-three months is key. Small practices, who may see this first, will see another level of pressure, because they will be held to their Medicare quality metrics in value-based models even if adjusted. Hospitals will also rebound–if they are able. The dark side: private payers may run the numbers and scale back on benefits for the 2021 year especially if COVID is projected to make a return.
  • Behavioral health may benefit, yet drive individual practices and a wave of retirements, or a consolidation into clinic or group settings. There’s a reason why Optum is buying out AbleTo; we may see a wave of competitor acquisitions in this area with the emphasis will be on cognitive health and short courses. Why retirements? Many psychiatric practices are still independent, concentrated geographically, and the average psychiatrist is over 50. Psychiatric EHRs are both costly and not particularly suited to practices. If faced with technological challenges, a lot of MDs and senior clinical psychologists may very well exit–threatening clinics which need MDs to legally operate.
  • Rural health’s failure accelerated. USA Today’s analysis pinpointed at least 100 rural hospitals to close within the year. They already operated on thin margins, but with COVID expenses for additional equipment, the closing down of more profitable elective procedures and dependence on Medicaid, the over 1,100 unprofitable hospitals, over half of which are the only hospital in their county, have received a body blow. HHS allocated $10 billion to rural hospitals and clinics of the $100 billion aid package, but it may be too little and too late. Becker’s Hospital Review continues to track the bankruptcies and closures. Here there are no easy solutions from the digital health area.
  • A culture of cleanliness should accelerate. If the genie pulls this out of the bottle, one major benefit will be that hospital-acquired infections will decline. Effective sanitization methods that reduce human application and scrubbing will be the ones to look at: disinfecting foggers and UV full room or area systems–or combinations of same. Cleanliness and lack of virii and bacteria may become a new metric. Look and bet on companies that can provide this, from rooms to computers/mobile tablets and phones.

Readers can help with these prognostications and especially how they will play out not only in the US, but also in the UK, Europe, and worldwide.

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield adds virtual dental care with The TeleDentists in 9 states

Could it be that a certain sage from New Jersey is on the money in predicting to this Editor that telemedicine has advanced about 10 years in the past two months? Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) is adding the virtual dental care provided by The TeleDentists to its plans in nine states: Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California. Through 30 June, the plans will cover virtual exams at 100 percent with no deductibles, copays, paperwork or claims to file. The virtual visit dentistry service offered by The TeleDentists is designed for urgent situations and to avoid an initial visit to the ER which can be several hundred dollars.

A member will locate a remote dentist through Anthem’s provider finder, then link to The TeleDentists’ site where the member is screened for history. A connection to a dentist then takes place quickly, in as little as 10 minutes, 24/7/365. The format is a video consult plus chat (TeleDentists uses the HIPAA-compliant VSee platform) to evaluate the plan member, then to guide on next steps. If necessary, the dentist will prescribe medications, such as antibiotics and non-narcotic pain relievers.

In the US, Anthem is #3 after UnitedHealthCare and Kaiser. It is the largest for profit insurer in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. In California alone, it has 800,000 members.  This adds to The TeleDentists partnership with Cigna announced earlier this month [TTA 15 April]. Releases (9) on Business Wire. Hat tip to CEO Howard Reis.

Cigna launches dental telehealth with Dental Virtual Care–including The TeleDentists

In the US, most insurance payers have been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by waiving cost-sharing, such as deductibles and co-pays, for coronavirus treatment–and also waiving co-pays for medical telemedicine/telehealth visits for any reason. A medical area that hasn’t been considered previously, but is becoming more important as restrictions continue, is dental treatment. Nearly all dental practices have been shut or open for emergency treatment only since mid-March.

Cigna is possibly the first payer to innovate a Dental Virtual Care program for emergency care using its own dental network and that of The TeleDentists [TTA 19 June 19]–and at no cost through 31 May. (For instance, The TeleDentists’ average consult cost is $69.) Cigna’s 16 million members of their employer-sponsored insurance plans are eligible for the program. 

Teledentristry is designed for urgent situations, such as pain, infection, and swelling, and to avoid an initial visit to the ER. The visit is done through a video consult plus chat (TeleDentists uses the VSee platform) to evaluate the plan member, then to guide on next steps. If necessary, the dentist will prescribe medications, such as antibiotics and non-narcotic pain relievers.

The program will continue later than 31 May subject to state regulations and benefit plans as part of Cigna Dental Health Connect. Cigna release. Hat tip to CEO Howard Reis.

Virus-(almost) free news: Cera’s $70m raise, Rx.Health’s RxStitch, remote teledentistry to rescue, Alcuris responds, Caravan buys Wellpepper, and Teladoc’s heavy reading

Keeping calm and carrying on (but taking precautions, staying inside, and keyboarding with hands that resemble gator hide), yes, there IS some news that isn’t entirely about COVID-19:

This Editor had put aside the $70 million funding by the UK’s Cera at end of February. What is interesting is that Cera Care is a hybrid–specializing in both supplying home-based care, including dementia care, and providing tech-enabled services for older adults. The funding announcement was timed with the intro of SmartCare, a sensor-based analytics platform that uses machine learning and data analytics on recorded behaviors to personalize care and detect health risks with a reported 93 percent accuracy. It then can advise carers and family members about a plan of action. This sounds all so familiar as Living Independently’s QuietCare also did much the same–in 2006, but without the smartphone app and in the Ur-era of machine learning (what we called algorithms back then).

The major raise supports a few major opportunities: 50 public sector contracts with local authorities and NHS, the rollout of SmartCare, its operations in England and Wales, and some home healthcare acquisitions. Leading the round was KairosHQ, a US-based startup builder, along with investors Yabeo, Guinness Asset Management, and a New York family office. Could a US acquisition be up next?  Mobihealthnews, TechEU

Located on NYC’s Great Blank Way (a/k/a Broadway), Rx.Health has developed what they call digital navigation programs in a SaaS platform that connect various programs and feed information into EHRs. The interestingly named RxStitch engine uses text messages (Next Gen Reminder and Activation Program) or patient portals to support episodes of care (EOC), surgeries, transitions of care (TOC), increasing access to care, telehealth, and closure of care gaps. Their most recent partnership is with Valley Health in northern NJ. Of course they’ve pitched this for COVID-19 as the COVereD initiative that supports education, triage, telehealth, and home-based surveillance as part of the workflow. Rx.Health’s execs include quite a few active for years in the NY digital health scene, including Ashish Atreja, MD.

Teledentistry to the rescue! Last summer, we focused on what this Editor thought was the first real effort to use telemedicine in dentistry, The TeleDentists can support dentists who are largely closing shop for health reasons to communicate with their own patients for follow up visits, screen new patients, e-prescribe, and refer those who are feeling sick to other telehealth providers. For the next six weeks, patients pay only $49 a visit. More information in their release. Hat tip to Howard Reis.

What actions are smaller telehealth companies taking now? Reader and commenter Adrian Scaife writes from Alcuris about how their assistive technology responds to the need to keep in touch with older people living alone at home. Last week their preparations started with giving their customers the option to switch to audio/video conferencing with their market teams. This week, they reviewed how their assistive technology and ADL monitoring can keep older people safe in their homes where they may have to be alone, especially after discharge, yet families and caregivers can keep tabs on them based on activity data. A smart way for a small company to respond to the biggest healthcare challenge of the last 30 years. Release

Even Caravan Health, a management services company for groups of physicians or health systems organizing as accountable care organizations (ACOs) in value-based care programs, is getting into digital health with their purchase of Wellpepper. The eight-year-old company based in Seattle works with health plans to provide members with outpatient digital treatment plans, messaging services, and an alert system to boost communication between care teams and patients. Purchase price was not disclosed, but Wellpepper had raised only $1.2 million in debt financing back in 2016 so one assumes they largely bootstrapped. Mobihealthnews

And if you’re stuck at home and are trying to avoid chores, you can read all 140 pages of Teladoc’s Investor Day presentation, courtesy of Seeking Alpha

Oral health: more than a public health challenge, an opportunity for telehealth?

Untreated caries in permanent teeth was the most prevalent health condition in 2010, affecting 35% of the global population, or 2·4 billion people worldwide. In 2010, severe periodontitis was the sixth-most prevalent health condition, affecting 10·8% of people, or 743 million, worldwide.

Worldwide in 2015, dental diseases accounted for US$356·80 billion in direct costs and US$187·61 billion in indirect costs.

Is oral health the next big SDH (Social Determinant of Health)? A focus in this month’s Lancet is the neglect of global oral health. Most of our Readers know that oral self-care can be a challenge with older adults due to physical limitations, finances, and access, but oral  and periodontal disease affects nutrition, is a source of pain, tooth loss, consequent low self-regard, low quality of life, and can lead to other diseases such as sepsis and undiagnosed cancers.

The Lancet’s two articles, Oral diseases: a global public health challenge and Ending the neglect of global oral health: time for radical action (open access, registration required on these links) point out the current allopathic model does not fit the wider societal need,  and come down hard on the social and economic origins (very hard on Western dental practice, the sugar industry, and food providers). However, the articles are light on solutions other than universal health care and community based dental practice. Even in less-developed countries like India and Brazil, practitioners don’t migrate to poor, rural areas. It is true, however, that much of dentistry, at least in the US, has an increasing focus on cosmetic restoration.

Here is a wide-open area for telehealth development. Some areas to explore:

  • Creating wider access to dentistry that treats immediate problems
  • Greater access to proactive dental care, whether dental checkups and to encourage better self-care
  • Connecting rural fixed or mobile clinics staffed by technicians or locally trained staff with dentists for remote screening and scheduling care. 

Hat tip to Leah at The TeleDentists for these articles. The articles are also attached as PDFs here and here.

Comings & goings: The TeleDentists go DTC, gains Reis as CEO; University of Warwick spinoff Augmented Insights debuts (UK); a new CEO leads GrandCare Systems

The TeleDentists leap in with a new CEO. A year-old startup, The TeleDentists, has announced it will be going direct-to-consumer with teledentistry consults. This will permit anyone with a dental problem or emergency to consult with a dentist 24/7, schedule a local appointment in 24-48 hours. and even, if required, prescribe a non-narcotic prescription to a local pharmacy. Cost for the DTC service is not yet disclosed. Currently, the Kansas City-based company has provided their dental network services through several telehealth and telemedicine service providers such as Call A Doctor Plus as well as several brick-and-mortar clinic locations.

If dentistry sounds logical for telemedicine, consider that about 2 million people annually in the US use ERs for dental emergencies; 39 percent didn’t visit a dentist last year. Yet teledentistry is just getting started and is unusually underdeveloped, if you except the retail tooth aligners. Several US groups are piloting it to community health and underserved groups, with Philips reportedly considering a trial in Europe (mHealth Intelligence). This Editor notes that on their advisory board is a co-founder of Teladoc.  Release

The TeleDentists’ co-founder, Maria Kunstadter, DDS, last week announced the arrival of a new company CEO, Howard Reis. Mr. Reis started with health tech back in the 1990s with Nynex Science and Technology piloting telemedicine clinical trials at four Boston hospitals, which qualifies him among the most Grizzled Pioneers. He also was business development VP for Teleradiology Specialists and founding partner of The Castleton Group, a LTC telehealth company, and has worked in professional services for Accenture, Telmarc and SAIC/Bellcore. Most recently, he started teleradiology/telehealth firm HealthePractices. Over the past few years, Mr. Reis has also been prominent in the NY metro digital health scene. Congratulations and much success!  

In the UK, the University of Warwick has unveiled a spinoff, Augmented Insights Ltd. AI will be concentrating on machine learning and AI services that analyze long term health and care data, automating the extraction in real time of personalized, predictive and preventative insights from ongoing patient data. It will be headed by Dr. James Amor, whom this Editor met last summer in NYC. Long term plans center on marketing their analytics services to tech providers. Interested parties or potential users may contact Dr. Amor in Leamington Spa at James@augmentedinsights.co.uk |Congratulations to Dr. Amor and his team! 

And in more Grizzled Pioneer news, there’s a new CEO at GrandCare Systems who’s been engaged with the company since nearly their start in 1993 and in its present form in 2005. Laura Mitchell takes the helm as CEO after various positions there including Chief Marketing Officer and several years leading her own healthcare and marketing consulting firm. Nick Mitchell rejoins as chief technology officer and lead software developer. Founders Charlie Hillman remain as an advisor and Gaytha Traynor as COO. Their offices have also moved to the Kreilkamp Building, 215 N Main Street, Suite 130, in downtown West Bend Wisconsin. GrandCare remains a ‘family affair’ as this profile notes. Congratulations–again!