Brent Wright

Often, the most challenging times bring about the greatest transformations. COVID-19 has propelled a major shift in the way physicians and other medical providers engage with their patients.

Telehealth — the delivery of care via video or phone — has quickly become a hallmark of the pandemic-era health care industry. But it was not very long ago that telehealth was the exception rather than the norm.

In an online survey conducted in mid-April, Kentucky Medical Association member physicians from across the state, representing a wide variety of specialties, indicated a significant increase in their utilization of telehealth services. Approximately 74% of physicians reported using telehealth to engage with patients during the pandemic, while just 10% had regularly used the service previously.

The KMA has been working to expand access to telehealth for years, advocating for improvements to relevant laws, regulations and insurance practices. In 2018, the KMA played a major role in advocating for legislation that made Kentucky one of the friendliest and most progressive states for telemedicine services nationwide.

Senate Bill 112, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, has allowed physicians across the commonwealth to care for their patients in a more convenient and cost-efficient manner.

Although COVID-19 was not on our radar when SB 112 first passed, having this legislation already in place put us in a better position to handle some of the health care challenges posed by the pandemic. While we have made great strides in making telehealth more readily available, there is still additional work to be done to ensure all patients can use and benefit from this critical service.

Even in 2020, access to broadband remains a significant problem for many communities, particularly in rural and low-income areas. Kentuckians need reliable, high-speed internet to utilize telehealth services to their fullest capabilities.

To that end, we are urging our legislators and public officials to invest in strengthening our broadband infrastructure, so that all patients, regardless of their zip code or income, can get online and connect with their physicians.

In addition to expanding access to broadband, we also need to continue removing regulatory hurdles around telehealth. Fortunately, there have already been many positive changes in this direction.

For example, physicians are now able to treat patients through a broader array of platforms, such as Apple FaceTime, Google Hangout and Skype, which was not allowed prior to COVID-19.

Telehealth is more than just a convenient option; it has great potential to improve health outcomes, bring down costs and help those in circumstances where an in-person appointment just isn’t feasible. And it is something every Kentuckian should be able to access.

Not all of the changes resulting from COVID-19 will be permanent — but telehealth isn’t a temporary fix. With patient communication and engagement more important than ever, telehealth has proven to be an indispensable tool for medical practitioners and the individuals who rely on us for care.

By continuing to remove regulatory roadblocks, and by strengthening our broadband infrastructure, our legislators and public officials at all levels have an important role to play in ensuring all Kentuckians can utilize telehealth — even as we begin to move past COVID-19.

Brent Wright, M.D., is president of the Kentucky Medical Association. He can be emailed at kathryn@runswitchpr.com

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