The Growth of Telemedicine: Rising Risks and Challenges to Address Today

Today’s global health crisis is transforming healthcare delivery. While telemedicine isn’t new, the pandemic has significantly accelerated its adoption.

The percentage of American adults who have tried these services has doubled since the start of the outbreak. The uptick is a positive industry development as telehealth services increase patient access to care and drive provider efficiency, but they also expose healthcare provider organizations to risk—especially those running programs for the first time or at a substantially higher volume.

The business risks of telemedicine

Given providers can’t physically examine patients during medical e-visits, it’s harder to ensure a standard of care. The possibility of misdiagnosis, which already impacts 12 million US adults per year, rises with telehealth services. While Medicare and other insurance programs have expanded coverage and reimbursement for telehealth services, the line for professional liability carriers is blurrier, which creates financial vulnerability for providers.

Telemedicine also raises unique HIPAA compliance dynamics. To limit COVID-19 exposure and ensure continuity of care, the US Department of Health and Human Services waived many HIPAA privacy penalties during the pandemic. But waived fines do not mean the law is completely suspended. Healthcare organizations and practitioners still need to obey the rules and take reasonable precautions to protect personal health information (PHI).

Four ways to mitigate telemedicine risks

Well-run telehealth offerings enable healthcare organizations to provide care to patients and bring in new (or maintain existing) revenue while mitigating risk. Here are four areas to prioritize while building and growing these programs:

1. Protect your data with third parties.

Thoroughly vet and monitor every third party with access to PHI or any part of your telehealth practice, including your platform provider. Ensure the technology you choose is HIPAA compliant. Ask tough questions around security, privacy protections and encryptions—and understand how the vendor is staying on top of evolving threats and relevant mandates. It’s up to risk, compliance and security leaders to verify PHI is protected and notify patients of privacy risks.

2. Ensure providers can prevent risks that lead to medical errors.

With misdiagnosis claims rising rapidly and getting costlier to defend, it’s critical to provide clear standards on how providers should run video appointments.

Make sure providers understand commonly litigated errors and how to mitigate those risks. Align on the specialties and services that can be conducted through telemedicine, and implement any needed changes in procedures, intake processes and other routines to create a successful telehealth environment. Encourage practitioners to ask colleagues for a second opinion when needed.

3. Empower patients.

One of the best ways to avoid the risks of misdiagnosis is to engage patients and create a safe space for them to play a larger role in their care. Make them feel comfortable by removing any underlying issues that could lead to a negative experience or hold them back from sharing information. Implement a thorough follow-up process to make sure patients understand their diagnosis, test results and other critical information shared during visits. This is harder to do without in-person interaction but is an incredibly important part of patient care and engagement.

4. Go beyond the risks you know about.

Risk management is about preparing for the risks you don’t expect. With today’s healthcare landscape rapidly evolving, organizations need to prepare for new complexities and threats. That’s impossible to do without a clear understanding of overall business exposure.

Centralizing access to risk information, mapping and correlating threats across the enterprise and understanding their interconnectivity within the organization helps healthcare risk leaders discover overlapping issues that put their business at risk. Aligning all aspects of risk—human capital, health and safety, legal and compliance, technology, financial—creates new visibility to stay on top of evolving threats and make more informed, confident decisions that improve patient safety and care.

The future is bright for telehealth

While social distancing sparked the exponential growth of telemedicine, patient interest is expected to last. Every healthcare organization needs to continually build infrastructure and refine practices so they’re ready to meet ongoing demand for virtual care offerings in a risk-aware manner.


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