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Telehealth more time- and cost-effective for chronic pain patients, bolstering case for provider adoption

Patient satisfaction was high even before the pandemic, and anesthesiologists say 50% of visits could be virtual.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Patients who saw a pain medicine specialist via telehealth saved time and money and were highly satisfied with their experience, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study being presented at the Anesthesiology 2020 annual meeting.

The results bolster the case for provider adoption of telehealth technology, which has already been on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic and patient concerns about contracting the virus in hospital settings.

Conducted from August 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, it verifies that many chronic pain patients are confident they will receive good care via telehealth, while avoiding lengthy commutes and time in traffic.

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WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Social distancing has accelerated the adoption of virtual care technologies, but patient satisfaction was consistently high even before the pandemic. While patients who are being evaluated for new conditions may be better served by an initial in-office visit, follow-ups can occur efficiently once the relationship with the provider has been established, with anesthesiologists at the conference predicting up to 50% of visits could be conducted remotely.

In the study, physician anesthesiologist pain medicine specialists at the UCLA Comprehensive Pain Center offered patients the choice of an in-office or telehealth visit via secure video meetings or telephone calls. In all, 1,398 patients chose remote care and were seen via 2,948 virtual appointments over a period of seven months.

Those who opted for virtual visits avoided a median round-trip driving distance of 26 miles, saved a median 69 minutes in traffic per trip, saved a median of $22 on gas and parking per visit, and saved a median of $156 over the course of a median of three visits by avoiding driving time and parking costs. Of the 327 patients who completed surveys, 92% said they were satisfied with their experience.

For the adoption of telehealth to be sustainable for pain clinic practices, authors said policymakers should consider expanding reimbursement to encourage its use and create payment models that take into account the additional work required to offer such visits. 

THE LARGER TREND

While the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services previously limited the types of visits that qualified for telemedicine, the limits have been waived during the pandemic, and many private insurers have followed suit.

For lasting change in areas such as reimbursement and the ability to offer telehealth across state lines, an act of Congress will be required. On the surface this seems like a tall order. Yet it may be one of the few areas in healthcare primed for bipartisan support. It has proven popular with providers and patients alike and, as the coronavirus has hampered elective surgeries and other service lines, it has been a much-needed lifeline for hospitals looking to breathe life into their ailing margins.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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This special collection of stories, which will be updated throughout the month, explores how hospitals, health systems and physicians are attempting to not only financially survive, but thrive, under the new normal.