In the US, physicians push hard for ongoing support for virtual care

Changes instituted because of the COVID-19 pandemic that relaxed the regulatory and payment environment for virtual care appear to have strengthened the support of US physicians for the use of digital health technologies.

The survey is being used by the American Medical Association (AMA) to bolster advocacy efforts calling on the US Senate to follow the House of Representatives and continue to flexibilities around Medicare payments for telehealth and regulations supporting telehealth, until the end of 2014.  Earlier this week, dozens of US medical associations (including the AMA), academic centres and insurers also sent a letter to the Senate also urging extension of measures introduced because of COVID-19.

The situation has been mirrored somewhat in Canada where medical associations have been negotiating to extend changes in the fee schedule to support virtual care as well as advocating for regulatory changes to make it easier to offer such services.

The new survey by the AMA involving 1300 physicians shows the number who feel there is an advantage in using digital tools for patient care has risen from 85% in 2016 to 93% now. This has been accompanied by a growth in the number of doctors using virtual care from 14% to 80% over the same period.

The letter sent to the Senate states “…patients now expect and often prefer telehealth as a key component of our health care system,” said the letter, adding “virtual care is now a fundamental part of the U.S. health care system, and it will improve patient access to high quality care and strengthen continuity of care well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Virtual care is now a fundamental part of the U.S. health care system,” the letter goes on, adding “…many of the most compelling clinical use cases for virtual care are only now emerging, more communities than ever have experienced the powerful impact telehealth has had in bridging gaps in care … without statutory certainty for remote care the hard work of building infrastructure, trust, and relationships with these communities is beginning to stall.”

Interestingly, the AMA survey indicates physicians feel improved clinical outcomes and work efficiencies rather than improved patient engagement are the main motivators for using digital health tools. In fact, the ability of digital tools to give consumers greater access to their clinical data dropped in importance between 2019 and now in the eyes of physicians as an important reason for using digital tools.

More than three-quarters of physicians polled (76%) feel that digital health tools can help reduce stress and burnout up from 69% in 2019.

The survey also shows US physicians are starting to adopt more advanced digital technologies in their practices. Eighteen percent now say they are using augmented intelligences for practice efficiencies and another 76% said they plan to do so in the future. Similarly, 18% say they are using augmented intelligence for clinical purposes with another 36% saying they are planning to do so within the next year.

Physicians will have good opportunities to view the digital health landscape in Canada this fall as both OntarioMD and Canada Health Infoway hold major conferences with updated assessments of the situation.

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