While lawmakers and the Trump administration have made it easier for patients to see their doctors via video conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, much more work needs to be done to make sure that telehealth becomes universally accessible and a permanent part of our health care.
Increased access to telehealth has long been a priority for The ALS Association and its advocates, as many people living with the disease have difficulty traveling to multidisciplinary clinics. In fact, many of the policy changes the Association pursued long before the pandemic have been enacted in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis. It is now critical that we fight to make those changes permanent.
The latest development in expanding access came August 3, when President Trump signed an executive order to improve access to telehealth services in rural communities. This was a big win for advocates in the ALS community, and followed more than 3,000 letters and almost 600 tweets being sent to Congress between July 28 and the president’s Executive Order on August 3. However, until there is permanent access to telehealth for all people living with diseases such as ALS following the COVID public health emergency, advocacy efforts must continue.
Telehealth has grown significantly in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telehealth was expected to be a $30 billion industry in 2020, an increase of $20.4 billion since 2013. Given widespread adoption of telehealth in recent months, that trend can be expected to accelerate after the pandemic. This creates an opportunity for ALS advocates to continue our fight for permanently expanded access to telehealth. As CDC noted in recent guidance to health care practitioners on using telehealth during the pandemic, telehealth can improve outcomes for patients and is endorsed by professional health care organizations. Research has also shown that telehealth can reduce health care costs.
CDC noted several barriers to telehealth, including limited access to broadband and the hardware needed to connect to doctors via videoconferencing – things like smartphones and tablets – along with restrictions to seeing doctors across state lines. ALS advocates, physicians, and other health care clinicians can unite to push for legislation to do even more to make access to telehealth permanent.
A good first step would be to tell Congress to pass the Protecting Access to Post COVID-19 Telehealth Act here. Currently, the expanded access to telehealth is set to expire after the pandemic. This bill would make sure that the current level of access people have to telehealth is not taken away.
To learn more about how telehealth is making it easier for doctors to provide health care to people with ALS during the pandemic and why it is important to expand access going forward, listen to a recent conversation with Dr. Richard Bedlack, director of the Duke ALS Clinic, on Connecting ALS.