Telehealth is more than just video conferencing with a physician.  That’s what the President and CEO of American Well – a leading telehealth services company – wants decision makers in Washington to know.

As part of our series connecting healthcare innovators to DC policy makers, CapitolVitals recently talked with the head of American Well, Dr. Roy Schoenberg, about the potential of telehealth.

Schoenberg explained, “People see the ability to use your phone and quickly get in front of a live physician who can read your record and prescribe medication, and they think that’s what telehealth is all about.”

That perspective overlooks the real promise of telehealth, which is the power to redistribute healthcare. 

Schoenberg says, “The ability of telehealth is to literally equate the playing field and say the services available in the coasts can be available in the Midwest.  The knowledge that’s available in the Cleveland Clinic can be available to the North Dakota patient who has cancer.”

It could also potentially help alleviate provider shortages if doctors who are burnt out are able to rejoin the workforce and deliver care on their own terms, for instance, several days a week from their homes.

When it comes to evidence suggesting telehealth’s power to reshape healthcare, Schoenberg points the Department of Veterans Affairs as the first indication that something is happening; that the dominoes are starting to fall.

“The canary in the coal mine is David Shulkin at the VA.”  Schoenberg points to the head of the VA, who is also a physician, as one of the first people in DC to recognize how to leverage telehealth.

“Shulkin recognized the only way we can change the experience for veterans with the resources we have is by implementing telehealth – essentially mobilizing how we provide healthcare over technology.”

So how can Washington help harness the power of telehealth?  It’s going to require a mind-shift of policy makers to truly embrace how technology can be a game changer for healthcare – the same way it has reshaped other industries.

Schoenberg points to outdated statutes that haven’t been updated to account for innovations in technology.  For instance, legacy laws that require patients to access telehealth at a clinic or hospital.

One of the biggest challenges?  The Congressional Budget Office.  The challenge is that the CBO doesn’t have the instruments to understand what happens when healthcare is distributed over technology.  Schoenberg isn’t trying to point fingers; rather trying to highlight a problem with how we advance telehealth via public policy.  “The problem is, if you can’t come up with a number, you can’t change anything.  If it’s not scored, it’s not voted on.”

“As a result, when it comes to Medicare, there is a major social injustice in America. When people turn 65, telehealth isn’t available to you because nobody can score it.”

In order to dramatically reshape and improve healthcare in this country, Schoenberg argues that we need to get past these obstacles, both in terms of our mindset and processes that hinder progress.

Some progress was made with the recent passage of the budget deal, which included telehealth provisions. “It’s a great forward movement for the embrace of telehealth,” said Schoenberg.

Still, he sees more work to be done to make sure Medicare beneficiaries can experience the value of modern technology, the same way other patients do.  “The next step would be for CMS and the secretary to take advantage of this new discretion and to bring telehealth to elderly Americans who, until now, are excluded from its benefits.”

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Bobby Clark is Of Counsel at Winning Strategies Washington, a DC-based government relations firm, and a co-founder of Concordis: Strategy and Analytics. He previously served as a senior health policy for a senior member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, and most recently for the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.

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