The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has radically affected how providers bestow preventive care services to their patients and the communities they serve. Prior to the pandemic, telemedicine/telehealth utilization was used sparing due to regulatory and reimbursement barriers.

During the pandemic, federal and commercial payers temporarily relaxed telemedicine/telehealth restrictions and provided additional funding to expand telemedicine services. To address the ongoing identified gaps at population health level within our state during the pandemic, SC DHEC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control began reimbursing for breast and cervical diagnostic telehealth visits.

With these barriers lifted, providers who primarily relied on in-person encounters prior to the pandemic were able to implement telemedicine to continue providing care while adhering to the new COVID-related restrictions. Telemedicine has become the most important tool for providing primary care services.

Telemedicine refers to the use of information technologies and electronic communications to provide remote clinical services to patients. The digital transmission of medical imaging, remote medical diagnosis and evaluations, and video consultations with specialist are all examples of telemedicine. Telemedicine is just a one part of telehealth services.

Telehealth uses the same technology to provide a wider range of health services from a wider range of providers. Telehealth may include:

  • Teaching sessions for patients and caregivers about a new diagnosis or new medicine
  • Review of diagnostic or surgical results
  • Nutrition counseling for eating or weight problems
  • Mental health counseling for anxiety, depression or other problems
  • Offering help and tips to stay health and well during the pandemic

Telehealth platforms offer a variety of benefits for the patient and the provider. Patients can avoid the inconvenience of travel, missing a day’s wages and the overall stress of getting to the physician’s office. Telemedicine also allows providers to reach beyond their traditional geographic catchment areas. Utilizing telemedicine can also improve the time interval between the patient referral and the first clinical encounter.

The shift to telemedicine/telehealth is likely to have a durable effect on preventive services in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. While barriers have been removed, the changes are likely to be temporary unless the federal government permanently expands coverage to all. Payers would also have to adopt models of reimbursements that aligned with in-person visits. The SC Office of Rural Health will support rural providers as they continue to adapt their practices to these new models of care.

by LaShandal Pettway-Brown
Practice Transformation Consultant