/CMS Proposes to Expand Telehealth Benefits Under Medicare Advantage Plans

CMS Proposes to Expand Telehealth Benefits Under Medicare Advantage Plans

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), based in Charleston, is widely regarded as an industry leader in telehealth with a robust, high-volume telehealth program that touches not only MUSC’s local community but also impacts patients throughout the state.

In 2017, MUSC was one of two academic health systems recognized by the federal government as a National Telehealth Center of Excellence. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) gave MUSC this designation in recognition of MUSC’s expansive breadth and depth of telehealth services, most of which are in medically underserved areas of South Carolina, a state with a high burden of chronic disease and health disparities.

The MUSC Health Center for Telehealth brings together resources from across MUSC Health to connect patients and providers across South Carolina. The Center provides 77 unique telehealth services to more than 200 sites in 27 South Carolina counties, which includes hospital-based programs, such as tele-stroke and tele-ICU, as well as outpatient programs, where urgent, primary and specialty care is delivered directly to patients. The Center also operates school-based telehealth and provides telehealth services for skilled nursing facilities and institutional facilities.

Three key leaders of MUSC’s telehealth program will be presenting at the Convege2Xcelerate conference taking place Oct. 22 at Columbia University in New Yok City. The conference is sponsored by Partners in Digital Health, publisher of Blockchain in Healthcare Today and Telehealth and Medicine Today, and will feature sessions on transformational technologies including blockchain, telehealth and artificial intelligence (AI).

The MUSC speakers include James McElligott, M.D., who is the medical director for telehealth at the MUSC and an assistant professor in the division of general pediatrics at MUSC Children’s Hospital. McElligott oversees the Center for Telehealth at MUSC. Kathryn King Cristaldi, M.D., the medical director for School Based Health and an assistant professor in the division of general pediatrics at MUSC Children’s Hospital, also will be presenting, along with Dee Ford, M.D., a professor of medicine in MUSC’s division of pulmonary and critical care medicine.  

Leading up to the conference next week, Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Heather Landi recently spoke with Drs. McElligott, Ford and Cristaldi about their innovative work in telehealth services, what they plan to share with the Converge2Xcelerate audience and their vision for the future of telehealth delivery and its potential to transform healthcare. Below are excerpts of those interviews.

What do you plan to share with the Converge2Xcelerate audience during your presentation?

McElligott: We’re not doing as much on telehealth 101, but more on innovation and how telehealth leads to innovations in healthcare business models.

Ford: We will focus on two major initiatives within our Center of Telehealth. We will share the structured, guiding framework that MUSC applies to telehealth service development, which includes strategy, development, implementation and continuous quality improvement, and how we were able to develop that. We’ll talk about how you can develop and refine that to help ensure that you are able to successfully deploy a telehealth solution and sustain that solution. And the second part will focus on telehealth finance, and we’ll talk about the value proposition framework for telehealth services, as financial performance is integral to sustaining and scaling telehealth services. How does the value proposition inform how you structure and quantify your different telehealth services when you have a diverse portfolio of telehealth services, such as we do? Those two things, the structured framework for implementation and sustainment and the value analysis strategy for telehealth, will be the bulk of the session.

McElligott: When organizations are developing telehealth programs by using these distance technologies to enhance healthcare, what many folks struggle with is that they are specifically trying to take what they do with in-person care and extend it. Looking at the value proposition means you flip that a little and say, maybe the way we do it now is because it’s practical for what it means for a patient to walk into your office. What you find is that as you develop these services and as they morph a little bit, you have to ask yourself, what I am doing this for again? Some of the services that we have developed are directly to support a need, like another hospital contracts with us for a certain service, such as tele-stroke, because they have a lack of it.

The other telehealth services are focused on a population health perspective or trying to solve a problem in another way. If you remain focused on why you set out to do what you do, it keeps you guided towards that value proposition, rather than reinventing the wheel of what in-person care is like. It’s a way of giving yourself a trajectory of what we’re trying to get done and breaking out of the mold of traditional healthcare. You have to give yourself a trajectory and then design your telehealth service from that perspective.

Your organization has been able to scale its telehealth program to a full suite of modalities. What has been your roadmap to success?

Ford: I think it is a couple of things. One is the people—early on, we had physician engagement and strong physician leadership buttressed with an excellent administrative team who were collaborative and recognized that building some small siloed thing would not allow us to achieve scale. We had a really great team of dedicated people, both from a leadership level down to the front line, administrative support team. We also have very strong executive buy-in as far as telehealth being a key strategy. Our most senior leadership were very bought-in to the importance of telehealth and to MUSC using it in order to meet the healthcare needs of our state. That combination of talent and passion and leadership endorsement was integral. And, frankly, we were well-supported financially in terms of pursuing these efforts through a combination of funding sources, including some legislation allocation grant funding. We had the right people, leadership buy-in and enough financial resources to be able to grow and build.

Looking ahead, many people believe “telehealth” will become, simply, health, and a seamless part of healthcare. What is your view of the future of telehealth delivery?

Cristaldi: I think there is that thought that eventually we won’t be telehealth experts and we won’t work within the Center for Telehealth, but rather, we’ll be healthcare experts, and this will just be a part of what we do and part of the healthcare landscape. I think that’s everyone’s goal—how do we integrate this into healthcare as we know it. The thought behind it is—how do we address health, wellness, disease and the whole spectrum and continuum of care, when we can have more access to our patients and/or are patients have more access to us, and in different ways? Looking at how to directly connect to patients, that will be the future.

McElligott: That kind of conversation happens a lot over the past half-decade or so. It still seems to be going in the opposite direction, as the term itself [telehealth] is not going away as quickly as some of us thought it would be. It’s certainly is getting integrated and some of it is getting normalized and absorbed into healthcare.

You can look at it from two perspectives; one, it will be normalized, and just be a part of care. On the other hand, I think that it will be powerful enough that it will really change the way we do care, enough that it will be distinct. What I mean by that is, if you are using your cellphone to access care enough in multiple different ways, the whole healthcare relationship with the population might be enough to change that we will be accessing preventive care in a totally different way than we are now, where we go to a doctor and they tell us all the things to do to be healthy. So, yes, it may very well be absorbed into healthcare over time, but I think it will be different than what people think; it will be patient-driven in a way that’s even hard to predict now. It’ll be absorbed, but it will also transform healthcare at the same time.

Ford: I agree with that perception. The guiding vision for our Center for Telehealth is efficient and effective care. There isn’t another dollar in the healthcare system to pay for add-on services. But, you can clearly use technology to either make it more effective in some way, so more timely access to the right specialist, or, also, to make healthcare more efficient. And, there’s some work that you see in chronic disease management; there’s been good success in those areas to increase efficiencies in the systems. I think those two things combined—using technology to make the health system more effective and/more efficient, from the perspective of the patient, the provider, the payer, and the system—is going to be the thing that drives it forward and transforms the healthcare system.

What are some of the telehealth success stories for patient populations in South Carolina?

Cristaldi: Certainly, one of the most profound example is tele-stroke. In South Carolina, only a handful years ago, the majority of the population did not live within driving distance of a stroke specialist. That meant that, for most patients, if they needed tPA, the clot-busting drug that saves the lives of people who are having ischemic stroke, they didn’t live close enough to a hospital that had a stroke specialist to provide that kind of care. To me, that is so profound. You can’t physically get to lifesaving care, even though it’s well established in the medical community. To me, that was how I felt living in East Africa [where she completed some of her pediatric training].

Through the tele-stroke program, we connect stroke specialists out to the majority of hospitals in South Carolina and every South Carolinian now lives within an hour of expert stroke care. At a large population level, we’ve changed the ability to address a deadly disease. And, in our school-based programs, we’ve been able to increase access to care for children, particularly in counties where residents have no access to pediatricians. We have evidence that our quality metrics in dealing with chronic disease, like asthma, can even be better than those of in-person care, because we are able to see patients more often and really monitor their symptoms.