The COVID-19 pandemic changed healthcare in many ways. As the SARS-coV-2 virus rolled across the world, some communities suffered more than others; care disparities, chronic conditions, and provider shortages suddenly jumped into the media spotlight. But it wasn’t all dire. The pandemic contained a silver lining: the sharp rise in telemedicine adoption. Also known as virtual care, the ascent of telemedicine is transforming Native healthcare.

Consider a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study that found nearly half of Medicare primary care visits were provided virtually by April 2020, when less than one percent were virtual in February. Telehealth adoption skyrocketed for a primary reason: virtual visits kept both patients and providers safe from COVID-19 contamination. But these new telehealth converts quickly discovered telemedicine solves other challenges, such as expanding access to care, controlling costs, and lightening provider burdens. Gen Z patients, who grew up in a connected world, appreciate the digital ease of virtual care. Seniors with mobility issues or limited transportation options enjoy being able to check in with their doctors from home. In fact, 91% of seniors trying telehealth during the pandemic reported a positive experience.

As a result, there are a lot of new telemedicine fans now – and that’s especially true for providers working to improve Indigenous health. Because when you total up telehealth’s benefits, you can double the impact in Indian Country.

One big reason telemedicine transforms Native healthcare: many tribal nations are located in remote areas. This saddles Indian Americans and Alaskan Natives with the same care disparities as any rural area – along with a few challenges specific to their communities.

8 Telemedicine Benefits for Native Communities

Telemedicine transforms Native health barriers in multiple ways:

  1. Access to specialty care. Many tribal hospitals lack sufficient specialists on staff. By using telemedicine, they can connect to an infectious disease expert to assist with a salmonella outbreak or connect new mothers to a telelactation professional.
  2. Faster treatment. Many patients are shocked when they call a specialist and discover they’ll need to wait eight months or even a year for an appointment. Virtual care can help them book an appointment within the same week – and save lives when it comes to a patient having a cardiac event or stroke.
  3. Eliminating unnecessary procedures. A patient visiting IHS with chest pains might previously be redirected to a big hospital two hours away for an invasive diagnostic procedure. Telemedicine brings that cardiologist in remotely to decide if the transfer is necessary.
  4. Consistent care. Many clinicians stay at remote tribal or federal hospitals only a short time. Telemedicine lets patients build steady relationships with the same provider instead of dealing with continual turnover. Telepsych is especially valuable in building trust in behavioral health relationships.
  5. Provider relief. Physician burnout is at crisis limits. A virtual complement of fresh providers and nurses can lighten staff load and help clinicians truly unplug when they’re off the clock.
  6. Smarter capacity management. Connecting to clinicians at other facilities can help manage patient flows and alleviate emergency department bottlenecks.
  7. Easier hospital stays. Patients can stay in their community IHS hospital and enjoy family visits, without arduous transfers to distant hospitals for specialist consults.
  8. Accelerated interventions. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) lets doctors monitor patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or respiratory disease at home – and quickly intervene if their symptoms worsen.

Telehealth Reimbursement Changes

2020 made it clear the telemedicine genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The additional speed, agility and access to care are too valuable. When small IHS or tribal facilities connect to major hospital systems or provider staffing agencies, the additional support dramatically changes outcomes.

Right about now, you might be thinking, “That sounds great, but telemedicine visits don’t get reimbursed.” So, here’s your pleasant surprise of the day – they do. CMS has expanded telehealth reimbursement and parity laws require many commercial payers to reimburse virtual visits at the same rate as in-person visits. However, reimbursement does depend on variables like your state, the place of service, the payer, visit history, and other rules, so you’ll need to check the specific guidelines for your services.

Tribal EM and Telemedicine in Native Healthcare

Tribal EM works with telehealth leader MeMD® to provide secure, high-quality virtual care – one of the top five telehealth providers in the country, according to JD Power. As an easy and intuitive platform for patients and providers, MeMD helps you safely diagnose and treat a wide range of medical and behavioral issues while controlling costs. You’ll also get 24/7 patient care coordination support. Our partners tell us it makes it easy for them to quickly connect their tribal or federal facility to sophisticated medical expertise.

And that’s ultimately what it comes down to in the ongoing struggle to transform Native healthcare disparities. The ravages of COVID-19 increased resource shortages for many tribal communities and left some patients with lingering conditions. It’s more important than ever to fortify Indian Country with improved efficiencies and new expertise through the benefits of telemedicine.