Telehealth is the distribution of health-related services and information via electronic information and telecommunication technologies. It allows for a long-distance patient and clinician to have contact, care, advice, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring, and remote admissions. Telemedicine is sometimes used as a synonym, or is used in a more limited sense to describe remote clinical services, such as diagnosis and monitoring. When in rural settings, lack of transport, a lack of mobility, conditions due to outbreaks, epidemics or pandemics, decreased funding, or a lack of staff restrict access to care, telehealth may bridge the gap.

Telehealth proved to be very critical to Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic over the past two years, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Secretary Xavier Becerra. He stated that “We would be really closing our eyes to a new form of quality healthcare if we did not expand authorities for telehealth to be available to Americans.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services significantly relaxed restrictions on telemedicine during the pandemic. Beneficiaries could use telehealth in their homes because authorities suspended a requirement that they have to travel to physician offices and other healthcare providers, especially to rural health facilities in order to speak with providers in remote locations for most services. Medicare also expanded the number of allowable telehealth services by 146 and permitted providers to bill the same as for in-person visits. Many of these flexibilities are tied to the public health emergency designation, which is due to expire in April unless President Joe Biden renews it. At least one more 90-day extension is likely: The federal government informed states they would receive at least 60 days’ notice before the public health emergency lapses. In addition, Congress extended Medicare coverage of telehealth services for 151 days past the end of the emergency, so when does that occur.  

What this means is that Federal Government has given providers and doctors more authority on what they can and cannot dispense both virtually and post medical visits. Secretary Becerra has stated that “We’re going to work as aggressively as we can to get as much authority as possible so that the providers of the telehealth have an opportunity to save lives.” In fact, not only save lives but save money.

A good friend established, several years ago, a more elaborate telehealth program that goes beyond medical visits at home on zoom. This program was developed to help elders age successfully and help reduce costs. It provides clinical monitoring of vital signs, including blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels and weight; a complete social check-up to make sure seniors are aware of all the services and programs available – whether it be nutrition, housing, transportation, caregiving or any other support program; and hands-on, intergenerational support from a network of volunteers, including student technicians and social work students.

This program encourages seniors to be proactive about their health and therefore it lowers their medical bills because they will need to make fewer trips to the doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms. A study by Dr. David Lindeman, CEO of the Center for Technology and Aging at the University of California, Berkley, showed that those savings can really add up. The study found that for every $1 invested in remote health monitoring up to $1.30 was saved in the first year alone.

Trained technology students visit locations where elders gather, such as nutrition sites and senior apartment buildings. Other sites, like libraries or senior centers within the community can be used as well. Senior’s vital signs – specifically their pulse, weight, oxygen blood level and blood pressure – are measured using computers and other equipment. That data is then transmitted to telehealth nurses who review it remotely.  If the tests show cause for immediate concern, the nurse will contact the elder, their caregivers or primary care physicians directly. Each elder leaves the session with an information sheet that has the comprehensive assessment that includes their results of their vital sign tests, an explanation of what the results mean, and, if needed, other relevant information such as referrals.

In addition to the physical check-up, the program staff speak with each elder to learn if they might need any support services in the community such as nutrition, transportation, housing or caregiving. Because of this personal, one-on-one connection, in addition to the telehealth technology, they discuss the program as high-tech meets high-touch.

Telehealth has become a common and trusted tool to help elders receive health care and age better. The program described above takes health care a step further and is more an all-inclusive program. It needs to be continued for Medicare and Medicaid elders and disabled. 

What better way to add life to years?