What’s in Store for Telehealth in 2022?
Telehealth has become a staple, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it isn’t a replacement for many forms of medicine, it enabled people to keep up with their physical and mental health without having to make the trip to the office. Even offices that weren’t equipped for telehealth began adopting the technology early in the pandemic, and now it has become as common as making an appointment.
While the pandemic isn’t quite winding down, it is becoming more apparent that this virus will become endemic — existing in perpetuity rather than vanishing into the annals of history. What does this mean for technology, and what is in store for telehealth in 2022 and beyond?
Flexibilities Extended Through 2023
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth practitioners were only able to treat patients who lived in the states where they were licensed. When the virus began spreading, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a temporary waiver allowing patients to receive treatment from any practitioners licensed in the United States, regardless of the distance between provider and patient.
With the exception of states like Florida, West Virginia, and Arizona that have passed laws to make those waivers permanent, in most states, the waivers are beginning to expire and may leave patients struggling to utilize the care that they’ve relied on throughout the pandemic.
On December 9, 2021, a bill was introduced to both extend the existing telehealth waivers for two more years, through 2023, as well as eliminate the geographic restrictions on such care for Medicare recipients. As of the time of this writing, the full text of the bill is not available for the public, and there will likely be no updates until after the holiday season.
Increased Focus on Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity has always been a major part of the telehealth industry, but the pandemic — and the increased number of patients from cities around the country — have put those systems to the test in new ways. When various disciplines of medical practices began offering telehealth services to their patients — the majority of whom had an existing relationship with the practice, according to surveys — cybersecurity became a priority.
When the delta variant emerged, it became apparent that this virus was going to continue to evolve and mutate as long as it was allowed to spread. That came to fruition with the emergence of the omicron variant in late 2021. Telehealth appointments will likely continue to be the standard practice for some time to come, which means that an increased focus on cybersecurity will be on everyone’s mind moving forward.
Updates to the 2022 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule
On November 2, 2021, the CMS finalized its Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), which will have a direct impact on the telehealth industry. Before the pandemic, Medicare would only cover limited telehealth appointments that detailed things like office medical and psychiatric visits, professional consultations, and anything else that the HHS Secretary specified.
During the pandemic, additional categories were added to give patients access to additional services while protecting both themselves and medical professionals from COVID exposure. The CMS ended up adding 135 different services to the list of covered procedures during the pandemic.
This year, CMS is moving to permanently adopt some features that became commonplace during the pandemic, including virtual check-in and remote therapeutic monitoring, which will go into effect on Jan 1, 2022. While these small steps are helping to make telehealth more accessible and useful for current Medicare recipients, any massive sweeping changes would require legislative action and would take a lot longer to complete.
Looking Toward the Future
According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 will likely become endemic in 2023 or 2024, which means spending one to two more years living in pandemic conditions. In answer, the telehealth industry is here to stay and will continue to grow in the coming years. These changes will both shape the industry and help make it as user-friendly as possible while still protecting patient information.