The current public health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has opened the door to an enormous increase in demand for telehealth services as hospitals look for ways to manage the ongoing influx of critically ill patients. Earlier this month, the federal government loosened restrictions on Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services, aiming to mobilize more healthcare professionals in response to the crisis.
Dallas-based telehealth physician group, Access Physicians, is among the virtual health care services that have seen an increased demand for their services in recent weeks. The group, which consists of 661 physicians licensed across about 40 states, has had to adjust their own operations in order to make their physicians, all of whom work remotely, more available.
“We’ve always built in capacity to our workforce, just because the surges of inpatient medicine oftentimes are unpredictable,” said Dr. Chris Gallagher, CEO of Access Physicians. “I mean, we know seasonally that winter is going to be busier than the summer. But you know, why does one hospital have 50 patients on Tuesday and 30 patients on Friday is a mystery that no one ever is going to figure out. So inherently, we’ve always had a larger capacity built in. And we’ve been messaging to our clients of that capacity so that when they when they have a surge in demand and need for their providers, or their providers, or quarantine due to exposures, then we can be there to help and support.”
Gallagher cited the company’s efforts to expedite licensure and credentialing as a way in which Access Physicians is making their physicians more available to hospitals. Credentialing allows physicians to work with a specific hospital and has historically been a slow process—expediting the process significantly increases the doctors’ capabilities to help in-need hospitals. Gallagher also spoke to efforts to make their telemedicine platform more available by utilizing a bring-your-own-device/BYOD environment in which the Access Physicians app can be accessed on technology such as smartphones.
The benefits of telehealth during an infectious disease pandemic are obvious—telehealth allows healthcare professionals to work remotely, even as they interact with and care for patients face-to-face via technology. Having remote physicians helps reduce the spread of virus among healthcare workers, and also helps curb the need for healthcare equipment such as masks and gowns that have been so in-demand as of late.
Access Physicians is no stranger to the benefits of this kind of remote care. In 2015, the group became the first physician group in the nation to manage a cardiac arrest entirely remotely—an operation that they have continued to handle remotely ever since. Translated into the current COVID-19 crisis, the company has been able to provide much-needed pulmonary critical care doctors, infectious disease specialists, and hospitalists—which are doctors who admit patients to the hospital and manage them on a daily basis—to hospitals.
“You know, I always talk about telemedicine as a change,” said Gallagher. “Change in any industry is hard, but healthcare especially is historically resistant to change, just because change means risk that could impact someone’s life. While telemedicine has incredible promise and has done great things, hospitals have been slow to adopt.”
In spite of the bleak situation faced by the healthcare industry at the present moment, Gallagher said that he sees hope in this event making hospitals and healthcare providers more willing to embrace less traditional healthcare methods, like telemedicine.
“The situation that we’re all living in really exemplifies how important it is to give patients timely and adequate quality care,” said Gallagher. “And telemedicine is really the best tool to get to the bedside immediately and get the right specialists to the right patient at the right time. It’s not a replacement for in person physician work, but it’s an excellent adjunct that really adds and enhances capabilities. I think it will help accelerate the adoption of telemedicine to be just part of regular routine care in some way, shape or form in every patient’s hospitalization.”