If you work in the healthcare industry, you’d have to be impressively isolated to have missed the sharp spike in demand for telemedicine over recent weeks. In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, stakeholders across the healthcare landscape are turning to telemedicine to provide and obtain care while supporting efforts to minimize virus transmission. We’ve viewed telemedicine as a growing trend for some time now, but the introduction of the novel coronavirus across the globe has sent a surge of demand into the space. CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) has drastically reduced restrictions on access, coverage, and reimbursement for telemedicine services in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and healthcare organizations that were offering telemedicine solutions prior to the spread of COVID-19 have been promoting it as a primary channel for visits. Even small, privately owned practices are scrambling to implement telemedicine solutions. In light of these abrupt departures from the norm, our clients are asking: What do biopharma manufacturers need to know about telemedicine?
First, remember that it’s important to go into any discussion regarding telemedicine with three things in mind:
1. Telemedicine use is exploding. But no one knows how long that will last.
Global spread of the COVID-19 virus is driving an “acute uptake” of telemedicine utilization. 2019 data from Definitive Healthcare indicated that only 1/3 of inpatient hospitals and 45% of outpatient facilities across the US offered telemedicine solutions as an option to patients prior to the COVID-19 crisis[i], and even then, the services were only sporadically used in many cases. But times of crisis have a way of exposing us to services we wouldn’t have otherwise considered or tried.
For example, our family recently began using a grocery delivery service in response to the COVID-19 crisis and our state’s “shelter-in-place” orders. You might be doing something similar in your home. Would we have started doing this if not for a global pandemic? Frankly, probably not. But will we continue to use it? Perhaps… Or, maybe we’ll go back to making weekly excursions to the store ourselves. It’s just too early to tell. Just like our current approach to groceries, many people may have their first encounter with telemedicine out of necessity, but only time will tell how much of the current use will continue after life returns to something resembling normalcy.
2. Government restrictions on telemedicine are being reduced or waived. But many may be reinstated after the COVID-19 concern passes.
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, only Medicare patients located in certain areas may have been considered eligible for telemedicine, with coverage often reserved for those in rural and underserved areas. Medicare also set limits on the “originating site” (the physical location from which the telemedicine call originated), the types of health care providers who could provide services, and the types of services covered. Many of those restrictions have been reduced or waived in recent days, to the point that telemedicine is now a significant channel for care.
CMS was already taking limited actions to expand telemedicine benefits for some groups, such as Medicare Advantage members, before the pandemic. But the pace of those changes, like much of government reform, was anything but meteoric. And CMS has been clear to point out that the current waivers are being conducted on “a temporary and emergency basis”[ii]. Based on this, we believe it’s safe to assume that while coverage restrictions for Medicare patients may be reduced to some degree once the pandemic is over, many will also be reinstated once the country is out of COVID-19’s clutches. As the saying goes, “Follow the money.” If increases in telemedicine use can contribute to positive patient outcomes while potentially lowering costs, it’s almost certainly going to be a great part of our healthcare landscape. But if it raises utilization and costs? Both CMS and private payers will shut it down, fast.
3. Biopharma manufacturers have only a few opportunities at present, but they’re likely worth exploring.
Traditionally, biopharma manufacturers and telemedicine providers have not developed significant partnerships. The telemedicine industry has been focused on gaining new users and quality providers, and biopharma isn’t of much use in either of those efforts. But we are seeing some potential opportunities for increased involvement. Enhancing access to free trial and copay assistance offers? Probably an area to explore. Dissemination of patient education materials? Certainly worth a look. “Messaging” (i.e., advertising) on these platforms? Likely pretty thin, in terms of opportunity.
So… What’s the take-away for a biopharma company? It’s still too early to make major investments in telehealth, but pilot programs and demonstration projects are probably well worth exploring in some of these areas. But you don’t need to dive in head-first. Start by getting your feet wet, especially with programs that remove financial barriers, and perhaps those that help with education. And remember, these are programs you can start working on now, even if you and your team are working from home. We have experience getting these types of pilot programs off the ground quickly, and our agency friends can help with the media buys. Maybe by the time this whole COVID-19 mess is done, you’ll have a new program ready to launch in what we all hope is a world that may want to make greater use of telemedicine, but isn’t forced to do so by a global pandemic.
[i] Telehealth Adoption in the US: 2019 Trends [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 3]. Available from: https://blog.definitivehc.com/us-telehealth-adoption-2019
[ii] MEDICARE TELEMEDICINE HEALTH CARE PROVIDER FACT SHEET | CMS [Internet]. [cited 2020 Apr 3]. Available from: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/medicare-telemedicine-health-care-provider-fact-sheet