During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans had to innovate and rely on technology more than in any period in recent history. But just because the pandemic is mercifully coming to an end doesn’t mean we should stop innovating, especially when it comes to telehealth.
Louisianians often have trouble accessing quality health care. Louisiana only has 26 physicians per 10,000 residents, ranking right about in the middle of states. However this statistic is skewed, as the rate of physicians is higher in densely populated areas. St. Tammany, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Orleans parishes each have more than 35 physicians per 10,000 residents. By contrast, 15 parishes have fewer than five physicians per 10,000 residents.
During COVID-19, many of the regulations surrounding the practice of telehealth were temporarily relaxed via executive order. More than 1,500 emergency telehealth permits were issued during this time, as the demand for telehealth spiked by 14% across the nation. But even with the worst of COVID-19 behind us, the demand for telehealth will remain above pre-pandemic levels. Legislators should work to make changes to increase accessibility of this important technology.
One of the simplest ways to do so is to take the emergency orders regarding telehealth and turn them into laws. These policies have expanded telehealth access without any negative repercussions, and there is no reason to go back to an inferior status quo simply because the pandemic ended.
But other changes could potentially have larger impacts on telehealth availability. One crucial revision is ending the distinction between “telemedicine” and “telehealth.” “Telemedicine” is health care practiced by physicians while “telehealth” is practiced by other health care providers such as registered nurses.
Not only does this distinction lead to confusion in the regulations, but it also restricts some professions from taking advantage of different telehealth technology. For example, those practicing “telemedicine” are unable to take advantage of asynchronous store-and-forward technology. This technology allows medical data like X-rays or MRIs to be sent to medical experts for later viewing. The Legislature should end this distinction, but at minimum, it should allow all medical practitioners to use technology such as asynchronous store-and-forward.
The most impactful change to telehealth access is perhaps the simplest one. The Legislature passed laws allowing medical licensing boards to write rules regarding telehealth and applications by out-of-state medical professionals. But even with this power granted to them, most medical boards have not created these rules. So not only do many professions lack clear rules about practicing telehealth, but out-of-state practitioners who want to offer telehealth to Louisiana residents cannot practically do so.
This artificially caps the number of providers in the state, leading to consumers having fewer options. The Legislature could change this simply by changing the state’s laws from “may promulgate” to “must promulgate.”
While some medical procedures will never be able to be done via telehealth, creating more ways for Louisianians to interact with experienced and capable medical professionals should be at the forefront of legislators’ minds as session begins. The pandemic showed us that not only is there a demand for telehealth access, but there are medical professionals willing to provide it. All Louisiana has to do is remove the red tape and let the industry flourish.
Eric Peterson of New Orleans is director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation.