As healthcare mobilizes during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, more practices are attempting to dramatically ramp up telehealth to provide care and enhance safety. We encourage you to check back on this page regularly for the latest updates.
Telemedicine for Medical Practices During Covid-19
Updated April 3, 2020: If your practice is among those seeking to ramp up telemedicine visits for patients during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s good news—you’re covered for liability and we can point you to resources to get you started.
As the outbreak spreads, many practices are grappling with declines in patient visits. Virtual visits may give patients and practices alike peace of mind from the worry of the spread of infection. For example, phone use can reduce viral exposure during office visits. Some practices are creating cell-phone waiting areas, instead of gathering patients in their waiting rooms. After patients check in, they wait in their cars with their phones, ready to receive a call saying their provider is ready for them. While not true telehealth, cell-phone waiting shows how practices can use existing technologies to reduce COVID-19 exposure.
While telemedicine has a spectrum of uses, there are two critical channels in which it can play a critical role during the current crisis:
- It can be an essential tool both in keeping your patients at home, and in reducing the traffic and potential contagion in your offices. Many typical office visits—such as explaining test results and follow-up visits, can be accomplished via telehealth rather than in-person office visits.
- It can be an invaluable tool in screening potential coronavirus patients, especially with the current limited access to testing. If patients fear they have the virus, you can guide them in a video call through a symptom check—if they are not currently displaying symptoms you can schedule for another video call. If they are exhibiting symptoms and you want to see them in-person, you can schedule them to come at times designated for sick visits and better separate them from patients who need to come in for well visits.
Some practices may not think they are using telemedicine when in fact they already are. Telemedicine encompasses a range of care options, from remote presence technologies that allow specialists to serve patients in rural locations, to simply using a smartphone or landline to talk to a patient.
Some states consider phone consultations to be telemedicine. If a practice is not prepared to implement new technology, it can consider making greater use of phone consultations—especially for established patients—during this time. Whether or not a phone consultation is reimbursable depends entirely on the payer. Generally speaking, visits that involve both audio and video are more likely to be reimbursed. In situations where audio-only visits are reimbursed, physicians should be aware that reimbursements often are higher if both audio and video are used.
To support the medical profession during this unprecedented time, the following are answers to some frequently asked questions regarding telemedicine.
- Does my professional liability policy cover telemedicine?
- The Doctors Company’s medical professional liability policy covers telemedicine as it does not draw a distinction between traditional care and telemedicine. Physicians should check with their professional liability insurer about coverage. The market, including traditional medical liability insurers, recognizes that telemedicine has become a fact of life. Our chief medical officer, David Feldman, MD, MBA, FACS, puts it this way: “As physicians, we often think telehealth is a completely different way of practicing, but it really isn't—it’s an extension of what we already do.”
- Are there malpractice risks specific to telemedicine?
- Under normal circumstances, telemedicine is fairly low risk from a medical malpractice liability standpoint. The Doctors Company’s data shows that we had 38 closed claims involving telemedicine from 2007 to 2018, out of 27,559 claims. While the number of telemedicine claims has risen rapidly since 2015, most likely due to increased use, the numbers are still very small. This may be because the types of service provided via telemedicine tend to be for low-acuity conditions, which generally do not result in a claim. That said, under normal circumstances, a clinician encountering a potentially high-acuity condition via telemedicine who does not refer the patient for an office visit or to the Emergency Department could face a potential liability risk if an adverse event were to occur. That liability is essentially the same liability the provider would face after failing to make a needed referral following a face-to-face visit.
- What about documentation?
- Documentation is critical. Telemedicine doesn’t change the fact that physicians should use their best clinical judgment and document their medical reasoning in patients’ medical records. If a patient’s complaint would generally warrant an in-person visit, the physician should weigh the risks of any emergent condition against the risks of COVID-19 exposure for this patient, make the call, and document the reasons for this decision in the patient’s record to mitigate liability risks.
- Does informed consent need to be modified for virtual visits?
- No. Informed consent for the medical treatment rendered during a virtual visit does not need to be modified. However, there are risks that are unique to virtual visits that should be addressed with the patient, ensuring they recognize those risks and agree to proceed with the virtual visit. Electronic communication risks include, but are not limited to, ease in forwarding, intercepting, possible disruption or distortion due to technical failures. Inadequate informed consent communication between a healthcare provider and the patient/family is a top factor contributing to claims, according to closed claims studies by The Doctors Company. The same standard of care applies to telehealth as to face-to-face visits, so physicians should make certain an informed consent discussion occurs when using technology or the phone to treat a patient. An informed consent form signed by the patient, along with the documented informed consent discussion, is ideal—the provider of the telehealth platform may be able to advise you how to incorporate your informed consent document. Barring this, healthcare providers should document the results of the informed consent conversation with the patient in the medical record. In addition, the provider should verify and authenticate the patient’s identity. A telehealth informed consent form can be downloaded here.
- What about licensure and crossing state lines?
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, states have relaxed licensing requirements to encourage medical professionals to cross state lines to assist in the emergency. The Federation of State Medical Boards is maintaining a database of licensing requirements and waivers. In states that haven’t waived license requirements, physicians should comply. Additionally, many states have licensing requirements specific to the use of telehealth that they are waiving during the COVID-19 emergency.
While answering or placing phone calls outside of a physician’s state of license is a common practice, it can present risks both in terms of licensure and insurance coverage. Nonetheless, in an emergency, physicians should exercise their best judgement and take the actions they deem necessary to treat their patients. Documentation is critical when a physician is acting under the duress of a patient emergency.
Professional organizations that support telemedicine assist with licensure in multiple states. More information can be found at Interstate Medical Licensure Compact.
- Does a patient’s insurance cover telemedicine?
- During this crisis, Medicare, Medicaid, and many private insurers have relaxed restrictions around how telehealth can be used; however, healthcare insurers are not unified. As insurers continue to adapt coverage to this crisis, physicians should let patients know if it is unclear what their insurer covers to reimburse patient.
- Will I be reimbursed for patient visits I conduct using telemedicine technology?
- Yes. Payers have long reiumbursed practices for telehealth visits. Your reiumbursement will be determined by payer guidelines for types of visits covered and reimbursement amounts.
- What about privacy concerns when using telemedicine?
- To assist medical practices in accelerating implementation of telehealth services, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made a change affecting HIPAA enforcement: Effective immediately, according to a reference guide created by the Center for Connected Health Policy, the HHS OCR will “exercise enforcement discretion and waive penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients in good faith through everyday communications technologies, such as FaceTime or Skype, during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.”
Therefore, even without meeting the usual encryption requirements for healthcare communication, practices that wish to swiftly implement greater use of telehealth using readily available, non-specialized interfaces, like FaceTime and Skype, may do so.
- American Telemedicine Association
- Center for Connected Health Policy: “Telehealth Coverage Policies in the Time of Covid-19 to Date”
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, fact sheet: “Coverage and Payment Related to COVID-19 Medicare”
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, fact sheet: “Medicare Telemedicine Health Care Provider Fact Sheet”
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, frequently asked questions: “Medicare Telehealth Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)”
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, press release: “Telehealth Benefits in Medicare are a Lifeline for Patients During Coronavirus Outbreak”
- Drug Enforcement Administration, Diversion Control Division: “COVID-19 Information Sheet”
- HHS OCR: “Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications during the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency”
- The Interstate Medical Licensure Compact
- American Medical Association: “Quick Guide to Telemedicine in Practice”