Monday, July 13, 2015

Telemedicine (Telehealth) Rules Are Changing Slowly and Medical Boards and Payors Are Slowly Adapting. Be Careful to Follow State, Federal and Payor Rules

Today's New York Times has an article about telemedicine (we call it telehealth in California) entitled "Modern Doctors' House Calls: Skype Calls and Fast Diagnosis." It is a worthwhile read.

In my practice, I get calls from physicians and health care providers telling me that "telemedicine is now legal." This is especially common in aesthetic medicine (medical spas) in compliance with a physician or advanced practitioner visit before services are performed. While it is under certain circumstances, the efforts to make medicine like Uber or Lyft will face some challenges from medical boards, malpractice lawsuits, HIPAA compliance, prescribing issues, and insurance companies.

I have seen many physicians, health care providers and psychologists use Skype and FaceTime without researching their compliance and state rules. Remember, telemedicine (telehealth) is simply a valuable tool for providing health care services. 

It is as good as the policies and procedures followed. It is a valuable tool and can be very helpful to patients and practices. 

Here are things to think about if you are providing or plan to provide health care services via telemedicine (telehealth):

1.  If it is a new patient, you will be held to the standard of care for a physician having an in office visit. 

Physicians are held to the same standards and duties associated with practicing medicine regardless of whether they are practicing via telehealth or face-to-face, in-person visits. Your specialty will also come into play. Thus, if you are an internist or family practice physician, that is the standard. 

What if the patient has not had a physican in a certain number of years? How do you rule out other medical conditions?

How will you run labs (urine or blood) or perform other diagnostic studies? If the standard of care is that you take vital signs, how would that be accomplished?

2.  Prescribing is an issue. How will you prescribe for a new patient without a face to face visit? 

The prescribing laws in California for example are different than the telehealth laws and you must comply with them. For example, California requires that physicians perform a “physical exam” before prescribing drugs, and explicitly outlaws prescribing on “the internet” without a prior examination. Will your documentation meet this standard?

3.  Licensing. Most states require that you be licensed in their state. For example, physicians using telehealth technologies to provide care to patients located in California MUST be licensed in California. There are exceptions for consults but that requires that a physician request the consult and the other physician is simply using your review of the patient or medical records as a consultation.

4.  Informed consent. Physicians are held to the same responsibilities of providing informed consent. How will you obtain the written informed consent? How will that be in your file?

There are ways to handle this. The informed consent could be extremely useful to address some of the other issues raised here (the scope of the visit for example and a requirement that the patient go get a full physical and that you are not the primary care physician) but this needs to be thought out.

5.  HIPAA and State Privacy Laws. Physicians are held to the same responsibilities of ensuring the privacy of medical information. Skype and Facetime may not meet those requirements. They are not fully encrypted. There are services that are HIPAA compliant but Skype is not.

6.  Record keeping. Physicians are held to the same responsibilities of medical recordkeeping. 

7.  Malpractice and informed consent lawsuits and Board Complaints. I can imagine that in a couple of years we will see a lot of horror story lawsuits and Board complaints - probably many of them nuisance - simply because physicians and health care providers did not obtain written informed consents, did not follow HIPAA, did not keep good records and/or did not perform physicals or refer the patient for follow up.

8.  Medicare, Medi-Cal (Medicaid) and Private Insurance. Check with your biller on these issues. Medicare is not allowing billing for telemedicine and make sure your biller does not bill for phone or Skype visits or follow-up.

At present, the state laws are often limiting coverage to urgent care telemedicine.
For example, Washington is the 24th state to ensure reimbursement for some telemedicine services, does NOT cover virtual urgent care outside a medical facility.

It is the future but it will be carrier by carrier. UnitedHealthcare announced that by next year it would cover virtual urgent care visits for most of its 26 million commercial members by next year, citing the shortage of primary care doctors and the cost of less than $50 per virtual visit. Anthem will cover virtual urgent care visits for 16 million members in 11 states by the end of this year, and it expects the number to reach 20 million next year. 

Both insurers are relying on third-party telemedicine companies to provide the doctors and the technology platform for the service, just as most health systems do for now. Remember that these patients are already in the system where physicians have access to their records and they have a primary care physician. And the limit currently is for "urgent care." 

I believe that technology will vastly improve patients' lives and reduce the cost of health care. It will take time for us to adapt face-to-face to virtual examinations and get patients, providers, insurers, licensing boards, and malpractice standard of care all on the same page. If you are doing this, take the time to create policies and procedurers and run your plan by a health care lawyer. This is preventive medicine for your own practice.

For information or advice for your own practice, feel free to contact attorney Tracy Green at or 213-233-2260. Be careful out there.


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