I started taking care of Jim, a 68-year-old man with metastatic renal cell carcinoma back in the fall of 2018. Jim lived far from our clinic in the rural western Sierra Mountains and had a hard time getting to Santa Monica, but needed ongoing pain and symptom management, as well as follow-up visits with oncology and discussions with our teams about preparing for the end of life.
Luckily for Jim, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had relaxed the rules around telehealth because of the public health emergency, and we were easily able to provide telemedicine visits throughout the pandemic ensuring that Jim retained access to the care team that had managed his cancer for several years at that point. This would not have been possible without the use of telemedicine – at least not without great effort and expense by Jim to make frequent trips to our Santa Monica clinic.
So, you can imagine my apprehension when I received an email the other day from our billing department, informing billing providers like myself that “telehealth visits are still covered through the end of the year.” While this initially seemed like reassuring news, it immediately begged the question – what happens at the end of the year? What will care look like for patients like Jim who live at a significant distance from their providers?
The end of the COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11 has prompted states to reevaluate the future of telehealth for Medicaid and Medicare recipients. Most states plan to make some telehealth services permanent, particularly in rural areas. While other telehealth services have been extended through Dec. 31, 2024, under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.
But still,We can now see very ill patients in their own homes without imposing an undue burden on them to come in for yet another office visit. Prior to the public health emergency, our embedded palliative care program would see patients only when they were in the oncology clinic so as to not burden them with having to travel to yet another clinic. This made our palliative providers less efficient since patients were being seen by multiple providers in the same space, which led to some time spent waiting around. It also frequently tied up our clinic exam rooms for long periods of time, delaying care for patients sitting in the waiting room.
Telehealth changed that virtually overnight. With the widespread availability of smartphones and tablets, patients could stay at home and speak more comfortably in their own surroundings – especially about the difficult topics we tend to dig into in palliative care – such as fears, suffering, grief, loss, legacy, regret, trauma, gratitude, dying – without the impersonal, aseptic environment of a clinic. We could visit with their family/caregivers, kids, and their pets. We could tour their living space and see how they were managing from a functional standpoint. We could get to know aspects of our patients’ lives that we’d never have seen in the clinic that could help us understand their goals and values better and help care for them more fully.
The benefit to the institution was also measurable. We could see our patients faster – the time from referral to consult dropped dramatically because patients could be scheduled for next-day virtual visits instead of having to wait for them to come back to an oncology visit. We could do quick symptom-focused visits that prior to telehealth would have been conducted by phone without the ability to perform at the very least an observational physical exam of the patient, which is important when prescribing medications to medically frail populations.