Doctors Warn Second Health Crisis Brewing Under COVID-19 Pandemic

Doctors Warn Second Health Crisis Brewing Under COVID-19 Pandemic

Brandpoint (BPT)

(BPT) – The COVID-19 pandemic has rightfully garnered the attention of doctors and patients alike across the globe. The term “social distancing” has entered the vernacular overnight as Americans follow medical leaders’ recommendations to stay home. However, a secondary health concern is looming underneath the pandemic, one which becomes more and more dangerous as social distancing restrictions remain in place.

Currently, over 71% of adult Americans intend on canceling in-person preventative care appointments during the COVID-19 outbreak according to a study by MedStat, a medical data provider out of Research Triangle Park, NC. This number increases to over 78% for vulnerable populations over the age of 65. However, while these individuals are intending to cancel in-person appointments, 73% expressed a willingness to use virtual appointments (telemedicine) which increases to 75.5% among 65+ seniors.

Prevention is the holy grail in modern medicine. The metastatic melanoma death rate fell nearly 18% between 2013 and 2016, due in no small part to active surveillance and public education by dermatologists. Dr. Shelley Cathcart, MD, a dermatologist with Blue Ridge Dermatology, explains, “I diagnose, on average, 1 to 2 melanomas per week in my normal patient care … the transition to virtual care [has been] surprisingly smooth. If anything looks suspicious, I am still able to follow up in person.” While nimble practices like Dr. Cathcart’s have migrated rapidly to telehealth, patients have generally had a harder time. The same MedStat study found that only 21.2% of patients were both aware that their physician offers virtual care and knew how to access that virtual care.

Both small practices and large medical institutions are not taking this issue lightly. Morgan Jones, MSPH, FACHE and Associate Vice President of Strategic Planning at Duke University Health System, explains that in response to the pandemic, “Duke’s telehealth office is actively increasing offerings and availability of services as well as the capacity to notify patients of these options.” With over 1 million patients served annually, innovative institutions like Duke University Health System that make strides toward informing patients about telehealth can have a large influence. The same MedStat survey revealed that over 50% of patients age 65+ do not even know if their physicians offer telemedicine, making it essential to educate patients of their options once those telehealth options are in place.

Of course, offering telehealth services is one issue, getting health coverage for them is quite another. “Perhaps one of the greatest concerns among consumers is whether their insurance covers telemedicine at all, not to mention the growing unemployed population during this period,” noted Financial Editor Kyle Whigham at Finance Reference Data Services. He continues, “As families pinch pennies during this growing economic crisis, uncovered medical expenses can’t be budgeted.” Dr. Cathcart notes that “Most insurances … have made allowances for their customers to receive telemedicine care.” Many practices are forging ahead without certainty of coverage, unwilling to let patients suffer, while states like California are pressing payers to expand coverage and to mirror reimbursement rates for physicians. To date, several major insurers including Humana, BCBS, Cigna and Aetna have expanded telehealth coverage; however these changes differ from plan to plan and state to state, leaving many patients and doctors uncertain.

Providers, payers and patients must all work together. The best way we will meet the challenges of this time of social distancing is if all stakeholders come together to bear joint responsibility in educating themselves, educating their patients and the public, and advocating for increased telehealth options. Most importantly, patients need to know that there are options available to them, and that forgoing important medical treatment is not required despite the COVID-19 pandemic.