Telehealth -- A 'Glimmer of Hope' on Health Care Front

Telehealth -- A 'Glimmer of Hope' on Health Care Front

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ORANGE, Calif. -- Lawmakers, medical professionals and other advocates for accessible health care say technology that allows providers to remotely see patients will dramatically improve the availability of medical services.

A pilot program conducted at Providence Speech and Hearing Center (PSHC) in Orange,Calif., for online tools that allow doctors to consult with, diagnose and treat patients over the internet without compromising their privacy, known collectively as telehealth, has reduced obstacles to care, according to the Center’s CEO, Linda Smith.

“Our patients have transportation issues, work challenges, and a number of other barriers to treatment,” said Smith during a recent press event held at PSHC. “Telehealth provides people with care they might not be able to access otherwise.”

Although more than 90 percent of pediatric patients in California rely on government programs like MediCal and California Children’s Services (CCS) in order to cover the cost of healthcare, only a handful of nonprofit providers accept those children for specialized treatment. PHSC’s facilities in Orange and Los Angeles counties offer needed care to kids who live as far away as Fresno. Many come from rural areas that lack reliable access to health services. Without telehealth, those patients would have to either go without treatment, or incur significant transportation costs.

Remote medical treatment can also offset a shortage of audiologists, speech pathologists and other specialty practitioners, according to Smith. By expanding the reach of medical professionals, telehealth allows them to serve people in areas where a specific field of treatment might not be available.

It can also help members of immigrant communities by remotely connecting them with clinicians that can provide culturally competent care in their native language. Removing language barriers allows for more efficient communication between doctors and patients that can lead to more effective diagnoses and treatment, according to the President of The Children’s Partnership (TCP), Mayra Alvarez.

Telehealth technologies have existed for a number of years and are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but apprehensions regarding privacy and the quality of care that it can provide persist among many potential patients. However, advocacy groups and telehealth supporters like Alvarez note that online tools have become integrated into a number of sensitive fields like banking and online commerce. She characterized many of those lingering concerns as outdated misconceptions.

“Technology is an aspect in so many parts of our lives,” said Alvarez in an interview with NAM following the presentation. “Why shouldn’t we empower consumers of healthcare by utilizing technology?”

Implementing that technology on a broad scale would lead to a significant reduction in costs for many low-income patients and greater efficiency for clinicians, according to Alvarez and Smith. However, public health providers like PSHC are not reimbursed for telehealth services and efforts that would allow providers to get reimbursed for some of the services delivered via telehealth have stalled.

Smith said only about 40 percent of the money they spend on treatment for patients is paid back by the MediCal and CCS, requiring PSHC to make up the difference with fundraising. California Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva said that the state legislature is working to increase the resources made available to providers and overcome setbacks stemming at the federal level .

“Even though there have been steps (to augment public health funding), one of the threats is what’s happening with the Affordable Care Act,” Quirk-Silva noted. “But, there is definitely effort to continue to move forward with legislation that will give more significant reimbursements.”

Discussion regarding far reaching proposals like Senate Bill 562, which would institute a statewide single payer healthcare system, have been on hold due to issues of logistics and cause. However, Quirk-Silva said that her office, as well as a number of community based advocacy organizations, are actively working to develop solutions to help cover the costs for telehealth and a variety of other life-changing health care services.

Alvarez added that for most of its existence, telehealth has been the subject of bipartisan support.

“Senators and House members on both sides of the aisle recognize the value of telehealth as an opportunity to build on what can be fixed in the healthcare system,” said Alvarez. “It’s a glimmer of hope in a very dark time.”