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COVID-19 has ushered in the era of telemedicine, and even normally tech-shy older Americans have embraced the change in record numbers. That, at least, was the takeaway from a poll conducted in July that was sponsored by the health-insurance industry. It found that virtual doctor visits skyrocketed by 300 percent among Medicare-eligible seniors since the start of the pandemic and that nearly half of those surveyed were comfortable using telemedicine in the future — signaling that an effort to avoid in-person medical appointments while the coronavirus rages might prove a practice that continues, pandemic or not.
Government data similarly show that in just one week in April, nearly 1.7 million Medicare beneficiaries received telehealth services, compared with 13,000 in a typical week before the pandemic, and that more than 9 million Medicare enrollees received telehealth services during the four-month lockdown starting in mid-March (when the government started allowing coverage of virtual visits due to the pandemic).
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As health care facilities reopen, that volume is leveling off, but experts say we're settling into having a sizable 20 to 30 percent of care delivered digitally from now on. “The past six months have proven that we can bring the doctor's office into your living room,” says Joseph Kvedar, M.D., a professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Telemedicine Association.
There's no doubt that the pandemic made this possible. Emergency rules removed some of the barriers that impeded the widespread adoption of home-based diagnostics and telemedicine in the past. Physicians can now practice across state lines; be reimbursed for in-home, telemedicine and audio (phone) visits; and use FaceTime, Skype or Zoom to communicate with their patients, which had long been considered taboo because of privacy issues.
As to whether these changes will endure, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Seema Verma, provided some insight with a recent statement: “With these transformative changes unleashed over the last several months, it's hard to imagine merely reverting to the way things were before.” As for what that means for those over 65, questions endure.