- - Thursday, March 19, 2020

It’s a lonelier time in America than usual. The coronavirus (COVID-19) has everyone keeping our distance from one another, and more people are entering quarantine every day. It appears we’ve reached the end of handshaking, and many Americans are avoiding human contact at all costs. That’s the smart thing to do right now. But eventually, most of us are going to need to see a doctor, and suddenly risks of contamination become much higher. For the foreseeable future, emergency rooms will be crowded and hospital beds in short supply.

Now more than ever before, it’s clear that the federal and state governments need to ease regulations on telemedicine. 

Through virtual communication, lots of folks are able to reach a medical professional to quickly ask questions about their symptoms. Companies like Telamed and Doctor on Demand offer video visits with doctors who can remotely diagnose and prescribe medications for common illnesses like pink eye and urinary tract infections (UTIs). These patients can receive care much faster than traditional care.

Emergency room visits, for instance, take an average of around two hours per visit. A critical portion of that wait is created by the 71 percent of emergency room cases that could be treated at an urgent care, a primary physician, or via telemedicine. My last telemedicine appointment, for reference, was less than 15 minutes and had almost no wait time. Using telemedicine can not only save you time, but the mass use of telemedicine also has the potential to lower wait times for people with true emergencies. Telemedicine can also be available 24 hours a day, unlike many urgent care clinics or doctors’ offices. 

In response to coronavirus, the federal government is thankfully lifting the restrictions on telemedicine temporarily for Medicare patients that limited eligibility for telehealth services to predominantly rural populations and it suspended any applicable HIPAA penalties. But it shouldn’t take a state of emergency to expand telemedicine’s accessibility. 

Telemedicine has the ability to be a powerful tool in outbreak situations by reducing the likelihood of transmission. When patients don’t have to travel to the emergency room or an urgent care facility, that lowers the chance of them spreading their illness to others or contracting something themselves — particularly in the case of the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

Although patients who suspect they have coronavirus would still have to get tested physically to know for sure, the AP notes that telemedicine “can help doctors make special arrangements to safely receive a patient who is sick and suspects the virus may be involved.” This even further reduces the likelihood of transmission to someone who is potentially more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus.

Sadly, many state governments have hindered telemedicine expansion. South Carolina, for instance, requires at least one in-person appointment before a health care provider can remotely prescribe things like controlled substances. And until recently, Texas did the same, but not just for controlled substances — for any medication. Restrictions like these are part of the reason fewer than 1 percent of Americans use telemedicine. Without these restrictions, more Americans could benefit from telehealth services and telemedicine providers to expand the services they provide.

Currently, many states require medical professionals to have a state-specific medical license in order to provide care to their residents. The Trump administration announced this week that it is temporarily waiving the in-state licensure requirements for physicians during the coronavirus outbreak. But this is only a temporary measure.

Luckily, for many Americans, a permanent solution could be soon on its way. Six states — New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Missouri, South Carolina and Florida — are considering legislation this year that would enjoin them with the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (IMLC), which allows physicians to offer cross-state care by streamlining the process for physicians to obtain multistate licensure. 

This legislation would increase the number of medical professionals eligible to provide telemedicine in each respective state. If passed, these states would make it easier for doctors to obtain multiple state licensures, ultimately reducing barriers for qualified medical professionals and increasing access to care for those who need it most. 

Erecting barriers like these prevent highly-qualified medical professionals from providing their services to Americans who need them — for no real reason. They should be reconsidered entirely, and for good. 

It’d be foolish to think coronavirus is the last 21st-century outbreak. If there’s anything to learn from SARS, the swine flu and ebola, it’s that the next coronavirus isn’t far away. We should be prepared for it before it comes. We can be, if only we’ll increase access to care through crucial tools like telemedicine. By allowing doctors to easily practice across state lines, too, there won’t need to be rushed emergency legislation to enact it in time of crisis. As we’ve already learned, we just don’t have that kind of time to spare.

• Brenee Goforth is a Young Voices contributor and a policy analyst at a state-based think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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