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How Telepsychiatry is Carving Out its Healthcare Niche

September 5, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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With a dwindling supply of psychiatrists nationwide, telepsychiatry services are starting to become more mainstream

It was nearly 20 years ago when a clinician (non-psychiatrist) brought up the notion of telepsychiatry to James Varrell, M.D., a licensed psychiatrist himself who at the time didn’t know much about the telemedicine subsector. “This was 1999 and it was like voodoo to me,” Varrell says, adding that after that conversation he needed to do his due diligence and research.

What came from that conversation, and ensuing exploration into telepsychiatry, was a realization that there was more support for it than Varrell initially assumed. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) put out a significant paper in 1995 in support of telepsychiatry, and it was around that time when research began on its ability to facilitate access to care, overcome geographical obstacles and how it compared to in-person care. “All of the go-to organizations in the [industry] have always been supportive of it. Clinicians individually have been skeptical since they’ve never done it. But now, many [places] are incorporating into their residency programs,” Varrell says.

Indeed, folks might not be as familiar with telepsychiatry as they are with other forms of telemedicine, since behavioral health often flies under the radar compared to its physical health brethren. But according to the APA, by the 2000s, the field began to see it as effective, but slightly different, than in-person care, and research in outcome studies provided a platform for practice guidelines, via the American Telemedicine Association.

Varrell says that today’s mental health landscape is characterized by an increased need for services coupled with a dwindling supply of psychiatrists. Indeed, more than 55 percent of U.S. counties are currently without any psychiatrists, and the mental health landscape is facing shortages in more than 4,600 areas, according to Kaiser. Varrell, who has been practicing telepsychiatry for 18 years ever since it was brought up to him back in 1999, now works at telepsychiatry service provider organization InSight, a Marlton, N.J.-based company that he founded in 2008 and where he currently oversees a team of more than 200 psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners—many of whom work full-time doing telepsychiatry.

James Varrell, M.D.

Speaking to the growth in the sector, Varrell says that his company began with telepsychiatry mostly in ERs where patients in crisis environments were prioritized. But, he notes, “The place more than anywhere where it started to develop was in rural environments, where access to basic psychiatry care would be otherwise inaccessible. That’s still growing,” he says. “Now, the new wave is that we are starting to do integrated care in medical offices, and that was a big push with Obamacare. We think the next trend is in-home services for consumers, which is telepsychiatry direct-to-patients in their homes or wherever they are [in a private space].”

The reason InSight started to provide telepsychiatry services was because it was located in a rural environment, but Varrell says beyond that, there have been valuable lessons learned since the organization’s inception: primarily that telepsychiatry works well for most people in most areas. “For people in crises, you don’t want to do an in-home visitation if they are psychotic or suicidal. You want them in more supported environments like outpatient mental centers or ERs if it’s very acute,” explains Varrell. “Over the years, we have learned that we can accommodate all types of people.”

Among these are: translations [for people who speak] different languages; the geriatric population, for which a great sound system is needed for older folks who have hearing issues; and also for those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities in which the patients’ families are present to make it easier and provide the psychiatrists with the necessary information, says Varrell.  

Over the years, telepsychiatry has continued to grow both in volume and acceptance. Varrell notes how educating organizations such as the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University have big electives for all of their psychiatry residents who are mandated to learn telepsychiatry. And, InSight as a sole organization performed more than 100,000 encounters via telepsych in all settings last year (hospitals, clinics, treatment centers, universities), while its in-home platform, Inpathy, is still growing but has around 100 direct-to-consumer sessions in a week, according to officials.

“This is an area that used to be weird and hard, but now people are jumping into it,” says Varrell. “Doctors are calling us all of the time saying they want to work with us. That’s good since there’s a national shortage and we’re often begging doctors to work with us in person, but this is the opposite of that,” he says, noting how on one recent day alone, eight psychiatrists called looking for work.

Carving out its Role

One of the chief concerns that telehealth skeptics often bring up is that it’s too tough to perform physical healthcare services when an in-person visit has not been established at least one time prior. But as Varrell points out, psychiatrists are in a situation in which they are not encouraged to touch their patients anyway. “We get in trouble for that, so telepsychiatry falls into its own category in telemedicine,” he says, comparing it to radiologists who look at films rather than physically interact with patients. “States have been concerned about the physical medicine side, like with Teladoc, where [doctors] will diagnose over the phone or via video without ever touching anyone. So there has been pushback from doctors there, and I understand that and see the justification.”

As such, Varrell says that psychiatrists sometimes get lumped into this bunch with physical care providers; states don’t want to carve out niches for psychiatry, he says. But some states have recognized the difference and have been willing to carve out psychiatry as its own unique intervention. In late July, for example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation which called for the practice and reimbursement of telemedicine and telehealth across the state. Included in the legislation, as explained by InSight officials, “It allows a large range of providers to practice telemedicine including: licensed physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, clinical social workers, physician assistants, professional counselors, respiratory therapists, speech pathologists, audiologists and optometrists.  This wide range of providers will increase the number of services that New Jersey residents can access.”

Meanwhile, in further regards to access to care, the insurance companies have been turning around their policies in the last five years or so as well. Medicare has reimbursed for these virtual services in rural environments for years, and for many state governments, Medicaid does provide some form of reimbursement for these services. Says Varrell, “The whole point is access to care, but that doesn’t always mean only for people who can pay out of pocket or with cash. Unfortunately that’s how mental health and psychiatry has been done for a long time. Due to the shortage, physicians have been able to demand that.” He adds, “But things are now turning around. We personally have national insurers that have come to us and asked us to do in-home services for them. And this is not just in rural environments; it could be in the middle of New York City,” he says.

Varrell says that there are telepsychiatry grants provided from the government every year, upwards of a few hundred million dollars. He says the next big leap will be in-home services, “which is the greatest equalizer of care. Then you can have a triple boarder seeing people in the middle of the mountains in the Ozarks, and their insurance will pay for it,” he says.

Varrell gives a few personal anecdotes of how he has used telepsychiatry to improve care over the years. He recalls one young woman who just had twins and had developed a very significant postpartum depression. With a third baby at home, too, and a husband who worked full-time, her care team came to the realization that she’d be hard-pressed to make any appointments. “She couldn’t adequately get the care she needed,” says Varrell. “So we were able to see her [virtually] for therapy as well as for medication management.”

Another one of Varrell’s patients had cognitive impairment, but this person’s family couldn’t figure out how to get the child in the car and drive over an hour to the doctor’s office because they were afraid that the patient would “beat people up when they were driving due to his impairment,” recalls Varrell. “But we were able to [intervene] here, too, with telepsychiatry,” he says. “There is now much more acceptance.”


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MUSC Telehealth Leaders Share Their Roadmap to Success

October 17, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), based in Charleston, is widely regarded as an industry leader in telehealth with a robust, high-volume telehealth program that touches not only MUSC’s local community but also impacts patients throughout the state.

In 2017, MUSC was one of two academic health systems recognized by the federal government as a National Telehealth Center of Excellence. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) gave MUSC this designation in recognition of MUSC’s expansive breadth and depth of telehealth services, most of which are in medically underserved areas of South Carolina, a state with a high burden of chronic disease and health disparities.

The MUSC Health Center for Telehealth brings together resources from across MUSC Health to connect patients and providers across South Carolina. The Center provides 77 unique telehealth services to more than 200 sites in 27 South Carolina counties, which includes hospital-based programs, such as tele-stroke and tele-ICU, as well as outpatient programs, where urgent, primary and specialty care is delivered directly to patients. The Center also operates school-based telehealth and provides telehealth services for skilled nursing facilities and institutional facilities.

Three key leaders of MUSC’s telehealth program will be presenting at the Convege2Xcelerate conference taking place Oct. 22 at Columbia University in New Yok City. The conference is sponsored by Partners in Digital Health, publisher of Blockchain in Healthcare Today and Telehealth and Medicine Today, and will feature sessions on transformational technologies including blockchain, telehealth and artificial intelligence (AI).

The MUSC speakers include James McElligott, M.D., who is the medical director for telehealth at the MUSC and an assistant professor in the division of general pediatrics at MUSC Children’s Hospital. McElligott oversees the Center for Telehealth at MUSC. Kathryn King Cristaldi, M.D., the medical director for School Based Health and an assistant professor in the division of general pediatrics at MUSC Children’s Hospital, also will be presenting, along with Dee Ford, M.D., a professor of medicine in MUSC’s division of pulmonary and critical care medicine.  

Leading up to the conference next week, Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi recently spoke with Drs. McElligott, Ford and Cristaldi about their innovative work in telehealth services, what they plan to share with the Converge2Xcelerate audience and their vision for the future of telehealth delivery and its potential to transform healthcare. Below are excerpts of those interviews.

What do you plan to share with the Converge2Xcelerate audience during your presentation?

McElligott: We’re not doing as much on telehealth 101, but more on innovation and how telehealth leads to innovations in healthcare business models.

Ford: We will focus on two major initiatives within our Center of Telehealth. We will share the structured, guiding framework that MUSC applies to telehealth service development, which includes strategy, development, implementation and continuous quality improvement, and how we were able to develop that. We’ll talk about how you can develop and refine that to help ensure that you are able to successfully deploy a telehealth solution and sustain that solution. And the second part will focus on telehealth finance, and we’ll talk about the value proposition framework for telehealth services, as financial performance is integral to sustaining and scaling telehealth services. How does the value proposition inform how you structure and quantify your different telehealth services when you have a diverse portfolio of telehealth services, such as we do? Those two things, the structured framework for implementation and sustainment and the value analysis strategy for telehealth, will be the bulk of the session.

McElligott: When organizations are developing telehealth programs by using these distance technologies to enhance healthcare, what many folks struggle with is that they are specifically trying to take what they do with in-person care and extend it. Looking at the value proposition means you flip that a little and say, maybe the way we do it now is because it’s practical for what it means for a patient to walk into your office. What you find is that as you develop these services and as they morph a little bit, you have to ask yourself, what I am doing this for again? Some of the services that we have developed are directly to support a need, like another hospital contracts with us for a certain service, such as tele-stroke, because they have a lack of it.

James McElligott, M.D.

The other telehealth services are focused on a population health perspective or trying to solve a problem in another way. If you remain focused on why you set out to do what you do, it keeps you guided towards that value proposition, rather than reinventing the wheel of what in-person care is like. It’s a way of giving yourself a trajectory of what we’re trying to get done and breaking out of the mold of traditional healthcare. You have to give yourself a trajectory and then design your telehealth service from that perspective.

Your organization has been able to scale its telehealth program to a full suite of modalities. What has been your roadmap to success?

Ford: I think it is a couple of things. One is the people—early on, we had physician engagement and strong physician leadership buttressed with an excellent administrative team who were collaborative and recognized that building some small siloed thing would not allow us to achieve scale. We had a really great team of dedicated people, both from a leadership level down to the front line, administrative support team. We also have very strong executive buy-in as far as telehealth being a key strategy. Our most senior leadership were very bought-in to the importance of telehealth and to MUSC using it in order to meet the healthcare needs of our state. That combination of talent and passion and leadership endorsement was integral. And, frankly, we were well-supported financially in terms of pursuing these efforts through a combination of funding sources, including some legislation allocation grant funding. We had the right people, leadership buy-in and enough financial resources to be able to grow and build.

Dee Ford, M.D.

Looking ahead, many people believe “telehealth” will become, simply, health, and a seamless part of healthcare. What is your view of the future of telehealth delivery?

Cristaldi: I think there is that thought that eventually we won’t be telehealth experts and we won’t work within the Center for Telehealth, but rather, we’ll be healthcare experts, and this will just be a part of what we do and part of the healthcare landscape. I think that’s everyone’s goal—how do we integrate this into healthcare as we know it. The thought behind it is—how do we address health, wellness, disease and the whole spectrum and continuum of care, when we can have more access to our patients and/or are patients have more access to us, and in different ways? Looking at how to directly connect to patients, that will be the future.

McElligott: That kind of conversation happens a lot over the past half-decade or so. It still seems to be going in the opposite direction, as the term itself [telehealth] is not going away as quickly as some of us thought it would be. It’s certainly is getting integrated and some of it is getting normalized and absorbed into healthcare.

You can look at it from two perspectives; one, it will be normalized, and just be a part of care. On the other hand, I think that it will be powerful enough that it will really change the way we do care, enough that it will be distinct. What I mean by that is, if you are using your cellphone to access care enough in multiple different ways, the whole healthcare relationship with the population might be enough to change that we will be accessing preventive care in a totally different way than we are now, where we go to a doctor and they tell us all the things to do to be healthy. So, yes, it may very well be absorbed into healthcare over time, but I think it will be different than what people think; it will be patient-driven in a way that’s even hard to predict now. It’ll be absorbed, but it will also transform healthcare at the same time.

Ford: I agree with that perception. The guiding vision for our Center for Telehealth is efficient and effective care. There isn’t another dollar in the healthcare system to pay for add-on services. But, you can clearly use technology to either make it more effective in some way, so more timely access to the right specialist, or, also, to make healthcare more efficient. And, there’s some work that you see in chronic disease management; there’s been good success in those areas to increase efficiencies in the systems. I think those two things combined—using technology to make the health system more effective and/more efficient, from the perspective of the patient, the provider, the payer, and the system—is going to be the thing that drives it forward and transforms the healthcare system.

What are some of the telehealth success stories for patient populations in South Carolina?

Cristaldi: Certainly, one of the most profound example is tele-stroke. In South Carolina, only a handful years ago, the majority of the population did not live within driving distance of a stroke specialist. That meant that, for most patients, if they needed tPA, the clot-busting drug that saves the lives of people who are having ischemic stroke, they didn’t live close enough to a hospital that had a stroke specialist to provide that kind of care. To me, that is so profound. You can’t physically get to lifesaving care, even though it’s well established in the medical community. To me, that was how I felt living in East Africa [where she completed some of her pediatric training].

Kathryn King Cristaldi, M.D.

Through the tele-stroke program, we connect stroke specialists out to the majority of hospitals in South Carolina and every South Carolinian now lives within an hour of expert stroke care. At a large population level, we’ve changed the ability to address a deadly disease. And, in our school-based programs, we’ve been able to increase access to care for children, particularly in counties where residents have no access to pediatricians. We have evidence that our quality metrics in dealing with chronic disease, like asthma, can even be better than those of in-person care, because we are able to see patients more often and really monitor their symptoms.


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Seven Companies, Four Individuals Indicted in Billion-Dollar Telemedicine Fraud Conspiracy

October 16, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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Four individuals and seven companies have been indicted in a $1 billion telemedicine fraud scheme, the Department of Justice announced this week.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee unsealed a 32-count indictment on the individuals and companies. The indictment stated that HealthRight LLC, a telemedicine company with locations in Pennsylvania and Florida, and Scott Roix, 52, of Seminole, Fla., and the CEO of HealthRight, pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy for their roles in the telemedicine healthcare fraud scheme in a criminal information. Roix and HealthRight also pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud in a separate scheme for fraudulently telemarketing dietary supplements, skin creams, and testosterone, according to DOJ officials.

In addition, three other individuals were indicted along with their compounding pharmacies, Synergy Pharmacy Services, located in Palm Harbor, Fla. and Precision Pharmacy Management, located in Clearwater, Fla.. Another co-conspirator, Larry Everett Smith, of Pinellas Park, Fla. also a pharmacy compounder, and his companies Tanith Enterprises, ULD Wholesale Group, Alpha-Omega Pharmacy, all located in Clearwater, Germaine Pharmacy located in Tampa, Fla., and Zoetic Pharmacy located in Houston, Texas, were all also named as defendants. All the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, mail fraud, and introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce, per the indictment.

The indictment alleges that from June 2015 through April 2018, these individuals and companies, together with others, “conspired to deceive tens of thousands of patients and more than 100 doctors” located in Tennessee and elsewhere across the country “for the purpose of defrauding private healthcare benefit programs such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee out of approximately $174 million. The indictment further alleges that the defendants submitted not less than $931 million in fraudulent claims for payment,” according to the indictment.

More specifically, according to the indictment, the defendants “set up an elaborate telemedicine scheme in which HealthRight fraudulently solicited insurance coverage information and prescriptions from consumers across the country for prescription pain creams and other similar products.” The indictment states that doctors approved the prescriptions without knowing that the defendants were massively marking up the prices of the invalidly prescribed drugs, which the defendants then billed to private insurance carriers.

In addition to their roles in the healthcare fraud conspiracy, Roix and HealthRight were also charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud as part of a scheme to use HealthRight’s telemarketing facilities to fraudulently sell millions of dollars’ worth of products such as weight loss pills, skin creams, and testosterone supplements through concocted claims of efficacy and intentionally deficient customer service designed to stall consumer complaints, according to the indictment.

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With $6.3M PCORI Contract, UPMC Health Plan to Study Tech-Based Approach to Chronic Disease

September 25, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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The UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care was recently awarded a $6.3 million contract from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to study different care delivery models to improve outcomes for patients with chronic disease and a co-existing behavioral health condition.

The multi-year study will highlight payer-provider collaboration to support individuals with both physical and behavioral health conditions. The UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care is housed within the UPMC Insurance Services Division, which includes UPMC Health Plan, and is part of Pittsburgh-based UPMC health system.

The focus of the study is to better understand how to design systems to manage chronic disease and will compare a technology-centric approach with a team-based, high-touch intervention, according to UPMC.

PCORI awarded the UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care support for a five-year study with a long-term objective to enhance the ability of health care systems to better support individuals with chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and behavioral health conditions, reduce variations in practice, connect patients with care that is best for them, and improve meaningful, patient-centered health outcomes.

This PCORI study is related to a recently completed one-year pilot study, which showed that participation in an IBD specialty medical home, a care delivery model that is uniquely designed to provide comprehensive and well-coordinated health services, increases patients' quality of life while decreasing levels of disease activity and use of unplanned care. In fact, the pilot study demonstrated a 50 percent decline in emergency room visits and a 30 percent decline in hospitalizations among participants.

“The early successes of the pilot study are encouraging and now this multi-year PCORI study will allow us to further align the payer and provider to develop long-term benefits and applications in a variety of clinical settings," William Shrank, M.D., chief medical officer for UPMC Insurance Services Division, said in a statement. "The use of technology as a key component of the study underscores the role that emerging trends will play in the future of health care."

Participants who enroll in the study will receive IBD specialty medical home care through either a team-based or tech-based approach.

The team-based approach is a personalized service design that includes gastroenterologists, behavioral health specialists, registered nurses, and health coaches who provide intensive, in-person support and resources. The tech-based approach leverages a digital platform using remote monitoring, digital behavioral interventions, and telehealth to deliver team-based care at the patient's convenience, at home and in the community, with the guidance of health coaches.

“By examining the effectiveness of a 'team vs. tech' approach, we expect that this research will provide insight on the most effective methods to provide both physical and behavioral health care to individuals with IBD and most importantly, a better quality of life for patients both now and into the future,"  principal investigator for the study, Dr. Eva Szigethy, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and senior faculty at the UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care, said in a statement.

Co-investigators of the study include clinical experts from the UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care, the University of Pittsburgh, Mount Sinai Health System in New York, and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

This marks the fifth PCORI contract awarded to the UPMC Center for High-Value Health Care over the past five years.

 

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