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Is Telehealth an Asset or a Liability?

March 7, 2019

Telehealth has been around for years, in one form or another. But its evolution has been hampered by a lack of underlying technology. Now technology has advanced to the point that it can fuel the progress of telehealth in meaningful, innovative ways. Today telehealth is hailed as a powerful tool that may solve many of healthcare’s biggest challenges. But it also has the potential to create serious liability that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Expanding Quality Care via Telehealth

One of the most impactful benefits of telehealth is that it can delivery care to those who don’t have adequate access to healthcare facilities. Twenty percent of rural hospitals across the United States, for instance, have difficulty meeting the needs of their communities. But telehealth facilitates expansion of services for smaller communities that don’t have a nearby major hospital or research institution.

Bipartisan legislation supported by the American Hospital Association and titled the REACH (Rural Emergency Acute Care Hospital) Act was introduced two years ago. If passed, it would allow hospitals to launch their own telehealth services. Those could, in turn, give small rural hospitals access to specialists and other healthcare resources. Congress, however, has not advanced the legislation. Such delays are critical at a time when many rural hospitals are struggling to remain open.

Legal Limitations and Liabilities

Other legal challenges persist, despite evidence that telehealth does help meet the needs of patients and providers. Telehealth is useful, for example, in diagnosing mental health disorders related to the nation’s substance abuse epidemic. Its effectiveness inspired the Department of Health and Human Services to create resources that aid clinicians using telehealth to treat opioid-related mental health issues.

But state regulations can create serious obstacles that impede progress on this and other fronts. Typically, the telehealth provider must be licensed within the state where the patient resides. There are also states that require extra licensing for telehealth. The providers must know and adhere to these rules, which vary from state to state. Unfortunately, there is no central database to find reliable information about all the various state-specific regulations. Without such knowledge, providers run the risk of breaking the rules, which is a tremendous liability. That liability extends to the hospital or clinic where the telehealth practitioner is providing care to patients.

Ways to Control and Minimize Liability

Providers can reap benefits as early adopters of telehealth technology. So can their patients and partners within the healthcare industry. But they need to be aware of the potential liability, and utilize strategies to protect themselves. One of the most basic steps is to verify that their insurance plans cover them in the event of liability related to delivery of services via telehealth. Not all policies include such coverage.

Careful documentation throughout the process of telehealth delivery is also a vital tool for controlling liability, as is careful and thorough communication across telehealth teams and between hospitals and partnering telehealth providers. Clear and transparent communication with the patient is always advantageous, too. Patient engagement and a patient-centric approach to care can help ensure success and satisfaction, providing insulation from potential liability.