South Florida Hospital News
Thursday September 24, 2020
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September 2020 - Volume 17 - Issue 3
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Are You Exposed? Protect Yourself from Pitfalls Before Providing Telehealth Services

Before the pandemic, telehealth was gaining ground among users who liked the idea of using technology to meet medical needs. But now it’s become even more important as people are foregoing physician and hospital visits while sheltering at home.

“While telehealth has been around for many years, its use has increased multiple folds—roughly 8,000 percent since the pandemic started,” said Medical Malpractice and Workers Compensation Specialist Tom Murphy at Danna-Gracey, the largest independent medical malpractice insurance agency in Florida.
 
“Telehealth was already used by hospitals because it simplifies access to care, especially in areas with shortages of physicians,” he continued, noting that the terms telehealth and telemedicine are often used interchangeably though they are not the same thing. While telemedicine is generally considered the act of a healthcare provider connecting with a patient directly through a phone or computer, telehealth is the umbrella term that includes using the Internet to answer health questions or to order prescriptions, or to access any form of healthcare remotely by means of telecommunications technology.
 
While this foray into telehealth has a lot of benefits, it also has drawbacks, especially for care providers.
 
Among its advantages are the fact that it provides more access to care, and enables providers to reach a much broader range of patients. It also enables those who are uncomfortable with visiting medical facilities or physicians during the pandemic with a way to see providers via phone or video.
 
“Even prior to the pandemic, telehealth provided a safety net for people with chronic medical conditions who needed to talk to care providers about issues with blood pressure, blood sugar, diabetes, heart problems, pulmonary issues and more,” said Murphy. “It also helps reduce risks with other medical conditions; if a person has an injury or cut, the physician can see it on video and prescribe medication as needed to prevent further injury.”
 
There are limitations with telehealth, however, including the potential for misdiagnosis. “If somebody complains of breathing or heart issues, or side or abdominal pain, it’s very tricky to create a diagnosis over the phone, which can potentially lead to malpractice suits,” said Murphy.
 
Telehealth may also decrease access to care for patients who usually visit the ER because they do not have a family doctor. “Underprivileged people may have less access to telemedicine because they don’t have actual physicians,” Murphy explained.
 
The risk of cyber-liability has also increased with patients and medical providers talking over unsecure lines. “This raises privacy issues, and HIPAA violations are of major concern when doing things remotely,” said Murphy. He added that ransomware issues have increased, as have phishing scams, which are estimated to have increased 350 percent since the pandemic began.
 
On the physician side, doctors are concerned with the uncertainty of reimbursement. “Right now, the federal government has lessened the guidelines for state licensing so that patients can get easier access to care,” he explained, noting that mid-level practitioners such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants can now provide this form of care without the oversight of a physician in many states.
 
“While this is a temporary relaxation of guidelines, the medical community and the government need to figure this out for the long-term,” he continued. “How will physicians ultimately be reimbursed for telehealth?”
 
Protect Yourself
With the risks of telehealth so high, it’s important that healthcare practitioners protect themselves.
 
“As cyber security professionals like to say, ‘If you’re 99 percent protected, you are 100 percent exposed,’” said Murphy, who suggests joining the American Telemedicine Association to take advantage of its vast resources for physicians and other medical providers.
 
“Check with your malpractice insurer to make sure that you have coverage,” he continued, adding that some carriers are regional and cannot offer coverage in certain states. “Certain carriers are more stringent than others, and you may need to be licensed in the state where you’re offering telemedicine services; for example, if you’re in Florida talking to a patient in California, you need to be licensed in that state.”
 
Some insurance companies provide their own telehealth recommendations or guidelines, and the federal government also offers a COVID-19 telehealth program that not only provides information, but may include monetary assistance to upgrade telecommunications.
 
“No matter what platform you’re using, you have to make sure that it is secure and HIPAA-compliant,” Murphy said. He also advises training staff and employees on how to deal with patients remotely and how to protect patient information.
 
“Even as people rush into telehealth, it is incumbent on those who advise physicians, and the medical providers themselves, to slow down and think about all of these issues before jumping in,” he said.

For more information, contact Tom Murphy or Matt Gracey at (800) 966-2120 or visit www.dannagracey.com

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