While telehealth began in the late 1960s, its popularity surged during the COVID-19 pandemic as patients and providers sought new ways to keep themselves and each other safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of telehealth visits skyrocketed by an impressive 50% during the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. The CDC also noted a 154% increase in visits in surveillance week 13 in 2020, compared to the same period the year before.
To facilitate healthcare delivery during the crisis, legislators lifted many of the barriers to the adoption of telehealth, thereby allowing its expanded use. Healthcare professionals in nearly all fields, including pharmacy, seized the opportunity to improve patient care in the face of the pandemic.
How Pharmacy Fits Into Telehealth
Patients love the convenience of telehealth, and providers see it as an effective and efficient way to provide better care. Telehealth includes activities such as video conferencing, telephone communication, store-and-forward imaging, and remote patient monitoring. These services offer long-distance care, promote public health, engage patients in health-related education, and do everyday health administration.
Physicians now use telehealth for primary care visits, self-management education for patients, psychiatric evaluations, and more. Nurses use the technology to take medical histories, provide advice, education and reassurance, assess for risks or identify life-threatening situations, and triage patients to the appropriate level of care. Pharmacists are also embracing telehealth in the practice of telepharmacy services as defined by the Model State Pharmacy Act and Model Rules of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
Telepharmacy will not likely replace in-person service anytime soon, as many patients still prefer to see their providers in person, however, many pharmacists and healthcare professionals are already integrating more telehealth and telepharmacy services into the care they already provide.
Pharmacists now have several telepharmacy services available to them, including:
- Remote dispensing
- Medication therapy management (MTM)
- Transitions of care
- Chronic care management (CCM)
- Ambulatory care
Pharmacists now use telehealth for many aspects of medication management. Many pharmacists use the technology to streamline the refill process, for example, or show patients how to use their EpiPen® or insulin pump. Using telehealth for these processes helps them improve the care they deliver and develop stronger client relations. Telepharmacy even boosts revenue streams by providing more access to clients and bringing in new patients that might not frequent the pharmacy in person.
Creating a Permanent Place for Telehealth in Pharmacy
Legislators changed federal laws and regulations during the pandemic to create new opportunities for pharmacists to provide telehealth services and receive reimbursement for those services. Medicare allows for the virtual supervision of many pharmacist services, such as waiving the refill limits on prescriptions, removing prior authorizations requirements, relaxing restrictions on mail or home delivery of prescription drugs, and expanding patient access to certain telepharmacy services.
These temporary waivers broke down several barriers that prevented beneficiaries from accessing care. Lifting these restrictions allowed plans to work with providers and pharmacists to treat patients without the burdensome requirements that limited patient and provider options during the pandemic.
Organizations like the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (ASHP) work to make these flexible opportunities permanent for pharmacies. Vice president of ASHP’s Government Relations Office Tom Kraus says that more than 80 organizations have already joined ASHP in the call to make this flexibility permanent so that it will continue to benefit health systems and their patients.
Both patients and providers benefit from the role of pharmacy in telehealth. According to KHN, by March of 2020, telemedicine accounted for more than ten times the share of patient visits than it had just one year before. Chief executive of AMHC, Ellen Bemis, says telehealth has been a godsend, and clinics have already seen improvements in medication adherence as patients have better contact with their pharmacists. Bringing in a pharmacist asynchronously to review medication management, make recommendations, or spot concerns can also reduce the risk of costly mistakes and improve patient care.
Together, telehealth pharmacy is a powerful tool that keeps our patients healthy and happy and helps our pharmacies provide exceptional care.