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Telehealth rises to the COVID-19 challenge for Tennesseans

Originally published in The Tennessean, April 2020

During the last few weeks, we’ve become intimately familiar with the concept of social distancing and all it entails — limiting travel, working from home, even covering our faces at the grocery store. But as we all do our part to protect ourselves and those around us, what happens if you still need to see a doctor? 

For a wide variety of needs, more Tennesseans than ever are finding telehealth to be a helpful solution. These services are covered by insurance plans such as BlueCross and provide quality care from a certified physician from the comfort and safety of your home, 24/7.

Virtual consultations can take place via phone or live video, and allow the opportunity to share your symptoms and get clinical advice from a doctor. These visits are very similar to in-person visits, and having these discussions with your doctor is just as important today as ever.

That’s why we moved quickly to work with our provider partners and expand access to telehealth for our members as we saw the need to balance access to care with the need for social distancing.

“We are excited to be able to provide care virtually as we work to keep our community and patients safe and well,” Dr. Brian Wilcox, president, Ascension Saint Thomas Medical Partners, recently told me. “After a patient talks with one of our providers for routine, specialty or even urgent care, from the safety and comfort of home, we can offer a reassuring treatment plan. Our patients are enjoying the convenience, as well as the flexible hours of access.”

Enhancing access to this resource

We’re currently covering virtual visits with in-network providers at the same benefit levels as in-person visits.  This change initially included primary care providers, specialists and behavioral health providers with telehealth capability, but was expanded to include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and applied behavioral analysis in response to the needs of our members. We’ve also worked with our partners at PhysicianNow to waive out-of-pocket costs for telehealth visits for all our members with this benefit. 

And we’ve already seen our members embrace this resource.

From March 16 to April 14, BlueCross processed more than 71,000 telehealth claims. During the same period last year, we only managed around 3,900 telehealth claims.

Patients have often found telehealth convenient for after-hours care or if they’re contagious and don’t want to visit a provider in person. In recent weeks, we’ve seen how helpful and convenient it can be for more types of care than ever before.

An eye toward the future

Of course, even without the presence of an easily spread virus, many people would like the freedom to see their own doctor from their own home. That’s why we’re working with our in-network providers to help offer these capabilities more broadly,  as well as with other providers who are eager to adopt this technology. We may see this telehealth trend continue even after social distancing measures are relaxed.

This type of virtual care is just one part of our larger strategy to support providers working to improve access to care and the patient experience. One of our first telehealth partnerships focused on women with high-risk pregnancies in rural areas. And in 2019, we supported East Tennessee-based Covenant Health’s specialty care telehealth initiative with an innovation grant to purchase new equipment for use in isolated areas, where our telehealth focus began. We’re now navigating a telehealth landscape for all members.

As this pandemic progresses — and hopefully slows — we will continue to help make the health care experience safer and more convenient for our members.

About Dr. Andrea Willis, SVP, Chief Medical Officer

A photo of the authorDr. Willis ensures that all clinical initiatives and quality endeavors support the needs of our members, and contribute to the overall health and well-being of our communities.

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