Making Inroads into Telehealth: How One “Sub-Sector” of Healthcare Continues to Evolve (Part 1) | Healthcare Informatics Magazine | Health IT | Information Technology Skip to content Skip to navigation

Making Inroads into Telehealth: How One “Sub-Sector” of Healthcare Continues to Evolve (Part 1)

June 13, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal
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One industry expert feels strongly in a healthcare future in which telehealth is simply “health”

Last September, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017, bipartisan legislation that expands telehealth services for chronic care patients in Medicare. As Healthcare Informatics reported at the time, the legislation’s overarching goal is to transform how Medicare works for seniors who suffer from chronic illnesses by including provisions such as expanding access to telehealth services.

Indeed, currently, there are several restrictions regarding reimbursement for telehealth services under Medicare, such as patients may only be located at certain clinical sites or within certain rural areas, and only Medicare-defined physicians and practitioners can provide telehealth services. The bill, which received favorable response from health IT stakeholders, is just one example of various recent and forthcoming policies and regulations that will make telehealth more mainstream and “open up” reimbursement avenues for providers, says Sean Sullivan, an attorney in the healthcare practice group of Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird.

Sullivan notes that there are lots of different telehealth policies that fall into a few different buckets.  For one, there is a “licensure obstacle,” in that every state has their own licensure requirements. Generally, the servicing physician has to be licensed in the state where the patient is located. “So you can’t just have a telemedicine company that has 25 doctors sitting in a bunker somewhere in some city, calling patients and taking care of patients all over the U.S.,” he says. “Each patient might be in different states and each physician might only be licensed in one or a few states. And it gets really difficult when you try to have a large-scale telemedicine platform because you have to have coverage and licensures for all the states you are covering. It’s the main barrier right now,” he says.

Sean Sullivan

As far as breaking down those barriers, Sullivan points to the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, an initiative which just recently officially began accepting applications from qualified physicians who wish to obtain multiple licenses from participating states. Currently, 18 states have adopted the Compact and eight additional states and the District of Columbia have introduced legislation in support of a pathway for license portability.

“That’s a huge relief,” Sullivan attests, speaking to the Compact. “It’s been fairly slow, though it is picking up momentum. But it is still not a one-sized-fits-all solution; doctors can’t sign up and get licensed in every state, but they can certainly apply to all the states where they think they will serve,” he says. And that brings up another key question, says Sullivan: Is there a different standard of care throughout different states and is it even necessary to have that state-by-state licensure?

Indeed, licensing providers across state lines has long been a challenge. Clinicians who want to treat patients in another state have historically had to apply for and pay for licenses in those states, a costly and time-consuming process. Some state boards have sought to prevent or limit the expansion of telehealth, citing patient safety concerns.

For Sullivan, state-by-state variances simply do not make a lot of sense. “A person with a cold, broken bone or any illness in Alabama is probably going to have the same issues and be treated the same way as if he or she was in Oregon. But the main obstacle is that these individual state medical boards want to and need to have a feeling of control. And it’s also a source of revenue in getting those individual licenses from each physician,” he explains.

What’s more, telehealth practitioners have also long been prevented from being able to treat patients until they have established an in-person patient-doctor relationship. But now, in almost every state, that relationship can be created via telemedicine, with Texas being one of the last holdouts for this particular issue.

Still, there continues to exist a confusing landscape of state laws and regulations. Sullivan notes that every state decides on how they the physician-patient relationship can be established, how telemedicine will be treated, whether or not consent is required, what might be required within that consent, what the limitations might be for providing prescriptions, and what the limitations might be for providing licensures.

Nonetheless, Sullivan believes that current and future regulations and policies will help remove some of these barriers, and that telehealth roadblocks will continue to dissipate each year. This will open up telehealth to service new areas—not just rural areas, he says. “Ultimately, all of us will be seeking to get healthcare and technology will simply be a part of it. Telehealth now is its own industry, but the end goal is that healthcare will include telehealth and the ‘tele’ part will go away. But more legislation ends to happen, as well as more regulation and guidance from CMS [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services].”

Sullivan does believe in one key factor that will continue to push the sub-sector forward, however: hospital buy-in. To this end, he says most of his clients are hospitals that are either affiliated with physician groups or have them as subsidiaries. These hospitals are setting up telehealth programs where a big or medium-sized hospital will reach out to smaller hospital and provide telehealth specialist services through their physician groups, he explains. “They may have a subsidiary physician group that has specialists in neuroscience, orthopedics or some other specialty that smaller hospitals might not have available, so they will contract with the bigger hospitals who are putting together telemedicine platforms,” Sullivan explains. That enables the small organizations to keep the patients at those locations. “It can be a lifeline for them,” he adds.

And on the reimbursement front, Sullivan acknowledges that providers are quite frustrated as they want to make sure they are getting paid for the services they provide. But in Sullivan’s point of view, physicians are thinking about the reimbursement challenge in the wrong way. “I try to get them to think about reimbursement not as the top priority, but instead to think about telemedicine as improving quality and improving access to healthcare for people who can’t access it. Then, ultimately, if you get those things in place, the reimbursement will flow. If you are doing things right, healthcare in the U.S. will get better and you will get your reimbursement,” he says.


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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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