9 Ways Telemedicine Transforms Indigenous Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed healthcare in so 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 jumped into the media spotlight. Today we’re facing an epic nursing shortage. But there has been a silver lining: a sharp rise in telemedicine adoption. Also known as virtual care, telehealth’s rapid ascent is transforming Indigenous 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 now these new telehealth converts have discovered that 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 Indigenous healthcare: many Tribal nations are located in remote areas. This saddles Indigenous Americans with the same care disparities as any rural area – along with a few challenges specific to their communities.

9 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. A backlog in care means many patients are being told they 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 can bring that cardiologist in remotely to decide if the transfer is necessary.
  4. Consistent care. Many clinicians stay at remote Tribal facilities 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.https://tribalhealth.com/the-behavioral-health-crisis-in-indigenous-communities/
  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.
  9. Culturally sensitive care. Almost every American hospital will treat Native American patients at some point. 78% of Natives live off-reservation, with 72% living in urban or suburban environments. If patients feel they aren’t receiving culturally competent care, telemedicine can connect them to a provider experienced in Native health.

Telehealth Reimbursement Changes

The pandemic has made one thing clear: the telemedicine genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The additional speed, agility and access to care are too valuable in our struggling healthcare system. 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.” Prepare to be surprised – 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 Health and Telemedicine in Indigenous Healthcare

When we talk about transforming Indigenous healthcare, we talk about more than improving outcomes – we talk about everything that makes the outcome possible, from access to culturally intelligent services to resources. The ravages of COVID-19 has left many patients with lingering conditions. It’s more important than ever to fortify Tribal nations with improved efficiencies and new expertise through the benefits of telemedicine.

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