The Benefits and Risks of Telehealth Services May 1, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has brought telehealth to the forefront as a way to screen for the disease and to manage care for high-risk patients with chronic illnesses. In fact, among U.S. adults, two-thirds said COVID-19 has made them more willing to try telehealth options.

According to the Telehealth Index: 2019 Physician Survey, conducted by telehealth provider Amwell, prior to the pandemic, 20 percent of physicians were using the technology—an increase of 15 percent since 2015. Almost two-thirds of the providers surveyed said they would likely start using it within the next two years. However, prohibitive costs for setting up the infrastructure to deliver telehealth and low reimbursement rates have made them reluctant to start.

Telehealth provides benefits for patients far beyond reduction of coronavirus risk. A study by Jefferson Health showed that patients who used a telehealth platform saved $300 to $1,500 per visit; most of these savings came from using the telehealth platform rather than going to an emergency room or urgent care clinic. Data from the Jefferson Health survey also indicated that the ease of accessing a health care provider via telehealth could increase the number of people seeking medical attention before their health problem became an emergency.

However, telehealth is not without risks, including privacy risks for patients, providers, and insurance companies. The technology can also increase the risk of cyberattacks.

Many health care providers—including large health system networks—may not have the IT resources or infrastructure to host and maintain their own telehealth platforms, so they use third-party platforms like Amwell or Teladoc, which can create additional risks. Health care organizations are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks due to the amount of sensitive information their databases contain. In 2017, Britain’s National Health Service was the victim of a ransomware attack that cost them almost $100 million to resolve.

The best way for telehealth providers to mitigate risks is to use end-to-end encryption, two-factor authentication, and secure logins. The American Medical Association also recommends reaching out to state medical associations for guidance on trusted platforms and vendors.

The AMA suggests that providers who are new to telehealth establish a team to facilitate building and maintaining a telehealth service and checking with the health system’s malpractice insurance carrier to make sure that telehealth services are covered under their policy.

Ultimately, telehealth can bring benefits for patients, providers, and payers—but these benefits also come with risks. Understanding and addressing these risks is as important as providers move into the world of telehealth.

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