Telehealth is playing growing role in helping to identify and treat people with the coronavirus, and to combat its spread across Alabama.
Healthcare providers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, along with those at least one other network serving portions of the state, are expanding the use of cell phones, computers and other devices to connect patients with physicians to screen for COVID-19 and other illnesses. In addition, Medicare and Blue Cross have expanded their coverage for telehealth services.
At UAB, which already provides critical care via telehealth to four hospitals around the state, doctors say they are working to broaden their use of telehealth technology, but do not have a date for the expansion to go into effect.
Medicare officials said Wednesday that they temporarily will allow payments for telehealth services, in response to the coronavirus threat. Medicare previously limited telehealth use to common health care office visits, mental health counseling and preventive screenings.
Medicare officials said a beneficiary now can visit a doctor from home without having to go to a medical facility, which will limit the number of people exposed to the virus.
Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of UAB eMedicine, said UAB’s expanded use of telehealth will be a three-prong approach: keep patients at home and isolate them from others; limit the amount of time spent with health care providers; and expand tele-critical care.
The program also will enable health care providers to prioritize patients who need to be tested for the virus.
Patients within the UAB health care system can use eMedicine’s online service, which allows doctors to diagnose and treat patients for a variety of conditions online. The service will screen patients with coronavirus symptoms to determine whether referral for in-person testing is needed.
Wallace said it is important to limit the exposure of coronavirus patients to health care providers so doctors and others can continue to treat patients.
“One way to accommodate this is to limit the amount of physical face-to-face time between providers and patients,” he said.
And should there be shortages of protective masks, the use of telehealth may be able to stretch the limited supply.
More UAB physicians and nurses are being trained to use telehealth.
However, if COVID-19 continues to spread in the state, additional providers will be needed to care for patients considered to be in critical care or in need of an ICU. Wallace and his team are working to expand the number of sites as a way to support hospital staff when necessary.
“If a large number of patients are infected, doctors will become infected, too,” Wallace said. “If this happens, we have a plan in place to supplement health care providers while they are out of commission. We will be able to man critical care units remotely and provide support to hospitals that may be facing a staffing shortage,” he said.
American Family Care Launches Telecare Service
American Family Care, a network of primary care clinics, on Thursday launched AFC/TeleCare Virtual Telemedicine Service.
The online call command center is available to anyone, not just current patients of American Family Care, and will allow physicians and other providers to virtually screen patients for possible coronavirus infection and treat patients for other acute and chronic illnesses.
Patients needing further care will be directed to a local Family Care clinic or other appropriate health care resources. With 18 clinics in the Birmingham metro area and 44 clinics elsewhere, American Family Care has the reach to help people across much of Alabama during this crisis.
Patients are able to interact with an AFC physicians and advanced practice providers from home via phone or internet to determine the next step for each person.
The AFC/TeleCare Hotline (AFCUrgentCare.com/Telecare,(1-888-881-1048) provides a centralized call center for Alabama residents to determine if they may have the virus. It also is available for those who have other medical issues but are concerned about going to a doctor’s office.
Alabama Senate Approves Funding
Earlier this month, the Alabama Senate approved a $5 million appropriation to combat the spread of coronavirus. Most of the money went to testing, but the state also is working on setting up means of contacting doctors with telehealth.
“It is important to know that we have test kits and tests are being administered, and we have excellent health care professionals who are prepared to act,” said state Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper. “One important thing to note is that we are setting up the ability to contact doctors with telehealth, so that next steps can be decided over the phone or video chat to limit the potential of exposure to this illness.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield Expands Telehealth Coverage
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama announced to customers that it has expanded telehealth coverage to further the fight against the spread of coronavirus.
The expansion allows physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and behavioral health practitioners to provide medically necessary services via telephone consultation.
Telehealth gives the insurance company’s customers the option of receiving care remotely to limit their exposure to the virus and other illnesses. It also can serve as an initial screening for patients who may need testing for the coronavirus.
Customers should check with their physicians to see if they participate in Telehealth. This service is available when an in-network provider is used.