The role of telehealth in medicine was on the upswing coming into 2020, with close to 90 percent of healthcare organizations involved. The coronavirus accelerated the trend: with COVID-19, some patients feel safer using telehealth.
For snowbird retirees, it’s a way to keep seeing their regular doctor while at home. For people in rural areas, it’s a way to get more choices in healthcare. And for anyone, it’s just more convenient to do a visit from the comfort of home, rather than drive to the office.
But with this new technology and convenience come more problems. Telehealth malpractice claims are also on the upswing and present a new set of issues for providers.
The problems with telehealth start with the quality of care. The doctor is reliant on the patient to provide documents and images electronically rather than getting an up-close-and-personal look at the person they’re treating. The doctor may miss things they would normally have observed. They might have noticed something that would have prompted a question. Telehealth places doctors more at the mercy of patients. Malpractice law has not been updated to address this change in the landscape.
Jurisdiction is another question. To go back to our snowbird retiree example: let’s say someone lives in the Chicago suburbs most of the year, where they lived most of their life and where they have their doctor. Now in their early seventies, the person understandably doesn’t want to change providers or split duty, so they do telehealth from their condo just outside of Phoenix. If a legal problem arises, are we using Illinois law or Arizona law? Insurance companies have a particular interest here, as states differ in everything from burden of proof in liability cases to how much in damages can be awarded.
One of the biggest hurdles to clear is privacy. HIPPA laws don’t change just because the doctor and patient are meeting virtually. The doctor has to be sure they’re conducting the meeting in an area where no one else is going to pop in. The platform itself must be secure.
The most popular technology platforms that patients are likely to use—Facetime, Zoom, etc.—do not meet the high security standards of HIPPA law. While some states have made temporary exceptions due to the pandemic, these platforms won’t be a long-term solution. Physicians have had to work on establishing secure platforms that their patients will find easy to use.
Telehealth isn’t going anywhere and no one in the industry feels the concerns outlined here are insurmountable. However, they do underscore the challenges that medical facilities face in a changing technological environment.